Posts Tagged ‘ Digital Divide ’

High-speed Internet: a right or a privilege?

Americans have long accepted K-12 education as a right for all. Debate now rages on whether basic health care also qualifies in that category.

But what about high-speed Internet?

That’s the question that will leap to the forefront with the F.C.C. poised to announce this week an ambitious plan to spread broadband access to the entire country. This proposal has been eagerly anticipated for several months, and it came up frequently during my research last semester on the Digital Divide as sign of hope on bridging the technology gap in this country.

It’s not as simple as a government patch, however. The involvement of the public sector in the business of Internet service providers not only costs taxpayers billions, but it tiptoes into the realm of free-market meddling that arouses intense criticism for hampering business growth. Already major cable companies are lining up in opposition for the F.C.C.’s plans to auction off areas of the broadcast spectrum to allow more space for wireless networks.

Yet if governments don’t take some action, rural Americans will almost certainly keep lagging behind in connection speeds. It simply doesn’t make good business sense to invest in Internet infrastructure servicing areas with a low density of potential consumers. That’s why the F.C.C. wants to offer subsidies to companies that offer high-speed access to rural America. It’s the same principle that has caused nations like South Korea and Finland to roll out expensive initiatives to wire their entire countries so high-speed Internet access is a universal right.

Some more competition among the private sector could also help. Most ISPs have a near monopoly on their markets, leaving them little incentive to improve the speed and breadth of their networks. That’s a big reason why Google is entering the industry through buying up “dark fiber” cables capable of delivering Internet 50 times faster that what most customers are used to receiving. Some have speculated this is a bid not so much to break into the ISP industry but instead to force cable companies to improve their connections speeds, since a faster Internet directly benefits Google’s core products.

Yet even if Internet connections get blindingly fast in the city, they’ll still lag way behind in the country without some government intervention. That changes the way students in rural areas learn, what services rural businesses can offer and what kind of digital content rural residents are capable of receiving. A PR or advertising firm might have to deliver one set of heavy multimedia content (videos, interactive microsites) for one audience while similtaniously running a different campaign for rural areas that doesn’t involve files that won’t download fast enough on the rural connections.

There’s no question that life on the slow end of the Internet is drastically different, and the divide will only grow more pronounced as more and more of society’s business and social functions migrate online. But are the consequences of no high-speed access severe enough to merit major intervention by the public sector? Is it a right we must establish for all no matter where they live? The answers to those questions will ultimately determine whether the digital divide narrows in this country or turns into a chasm.

Not all Internet connections are created equal

internet_speeds

Anyone still remember the dark days of dial-up? Back then logging onto the Internet meant a wait of 30 seconds plus, and every new website gave you enough time to grab a drink or use the bathroom while it loaded.

We might think this level of (dis)connectivity is behind us for good. Most U.S. residents now live in areas where “high speed” access is available, often from multiple providers. But just because something qualifies as “high speed” doesn’t mean it’s fast. Average download speeds vary tremendously across the country. In some cases it’s because there’s simply not a good network in place. Other times it’s because part of the state has very low population density and installing broadband is considered too expensive for private Internet service providers.

So where does your state stack up? The Communications Workers of America has tabulated download speeds from hundreds of thousands of tests. I took their data and made the map above to illustrate what regions have the fastest Internet access. Check out their site yourself for more detailed information, including breakdowns by county.

This isn’t just an issue of convenience. A relatively slow connection (regardless if it’s called “high speed”) dictates what users are able to do on the Internet. With U.S. speeds as a whole much faster than say, five years ago, it’s now common for websites to have embedded video, audio, high-resolution photos and animations — all of which take a long time to load. If your connection is slower than the rest of the country, you’re effectively segregated in the tasks and services you can accomplish online.

In other words, there’s still a form of dial-up in spirit if you’re network is slow. Only this time around, others aren’t waiting. They’re getting things done at work and at home while you’re just trying to upload a basic file.

Fortunately there are a number of developments — some driven by profit, some by charity — that are bringing more residents into the fast lane. I discuss them in greater detail in the digital divide research paper I’ve just completed. But at least for now those with a speedy Internet connection should recognize that it’s something for which to feel fortunate.

Universal access: the future of the digital divide

The pace of technological progress is constant, but not necessarily equal.

While more than a billion people worldwide have plugged into the possibilities of the Internet during the past decade, billions more remain disconnected, prevented by socioeconomic or educational barriers from experiencing the most recent advances. For some it’s a lack of infrastructure or resources to log online, while many others with all the tools to access the Internet fail to derive the benefits, harmed by a combination of inferior computer knowledge and a tech industry disinterested in designing programs and products catering to their needs.

The result is what has been termed “The Digital Divide,” a gap with profound influence on those left behind as the rest of the world accelerates into a digital age. The importance of bridging the gap has driven many worthwhile initiatives to provide laptops and Internet access in all school systems or to train displaced workers in computers. But the divide is a moving target. While studies show that the percentage of people with broadband Internet access is rapidly increasing, particularly in developing countries, many are tapping into the Internet without an adequate understanding on how it can lift them out of poverty and into the knowledge economy. Even in the U.S., where access to the Internet is widespread, a just released report from the Communications Workers of America shows that the average download speed varies dramatically by region with only 38 percent of rural residents subscribing to broadband, limiting the ability of some to leverage the web’s full potential. All the while, others who have long enjoyed technological resources are moving on to Web 2.0 and interactive mediums that will prove key in future opportunities for employment.

The purpose of my research project this semester is to look not just at how this divide exists today but whether it will exist in the future given the rapid development of easily accessible and affordable Internet applications. Will the devices and technologies ubiquitous in the society of the coming decades level the playing field, or will certain demographic groups be unable to adapt and utilize each new technology coming online? Will all youth raised in the current age grow up with the understanding of how to navigate the Internet, or will the training and knowledge needed to capitalize on future technology be exclusive to those with access to the best schools and teachers? What industries are tailoring their services and products for mass use across former knowledge and financial barriers, and which will only derive benefit to the previously initiated? Can innovations created for audiences in the developed world still be integrated into third-world cultures in a manner that can lift those communities out of poverty?

My research will examine current usage trends for various aspects of Web 2.0 to predict which are headed to universal accessibility and which will remain reserved for select groups. It will cite experts on the developments of Web 3.0 to determine whether the seamless blend of the virtual and physical worlds could be universally applied to all societies. It will look at ongoing initiatives to bridge the digital divide, efforts undertaken by a range of multi-national corporations such as Nokia Siemens Networks, public entities like the United Nations and non-profit organizations such as the Investor Group Against Digital Divide. It will evaluate the $7.2 billion earmarked in the U.S. federal stimulus package for increasing broadband access. The report will assess the results of these initiatives and what new efforts on the horizon are likely to yield.

The findings will be presented in a dynamic, interactive format that shows how widespread, or narrow, various technologies will permeate across different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Viewers will be able to navigate through a selection of current and developing Internet technologies and see which are on the path to becoming universally accessible, and which still require more effort to ensure no one misses out on the tremendous opportunities offered by the Internet of the future.