Posts Tagged ‘ Internet ’

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.

The Internet, projected onto the palm of your hand

Trapped onto a LCD display, the digital world and all its information feels divorced from organic objects. But what if everything and anything could become a digital screen? The line between the physical and the virtual would blur pretty fast.

Technology is making this possible, and maybe sooner than you think. The presentations I’ve seen during the past two weeks have included a wide variety of everyday items projecting digital information onto organic objects. The image could be the display from your compact digital camera, a feat that Nikon’s latest product can undertake. Or perhaps you want information from your dashboard up near the windshield so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road. The 2010 Toyota Prius can pull it off.

To take this to the next level, information won’t just be projected onto organic surfaces. It will display as an interactive touch-screen. Researchers at MIT have put together a prototype device (made for just a few hundreds bucks with spare parts) that makes this possible. Watch the video demonstration to get the full effect, but the gist of it is that you could project everything from your watch to your cell phone keypad onto any flat surface, then push the buttons from there. You could even take pictures and resize images using hand motions instead of hardware.

One wonders if we’ll ever be able to turn the Internet off. Once it’s projected everywhere you look, even onto your hand, the digital world may get hard to distinguish from physical reality.

The Internet’s benefits still offline for many

Study the digital divide, as I’m doing this semester, and you inevitably come across a number of boorish commentary pieces  making the claim that the digital divide is dead. Just about anyone who wants to has Internet access these days, the argument goes, so what once may have been a legitimate issue 10 years ago is now an outdated cause trumpeted only because journalists are too lazy to find a new tech issue.

Thankfully Elon students (well at least the ones who take advantage of free coffee and donuts) haven’t fallen into that line of reasoning. As a way to raise awareness for One Web Day this morning, my class surveyed several dozen students at the weekly college coffee on campus, asking their thoughts on how many people have Internet access in North Carolina and around the world. As the results of the survey show, the most popular answers were the correct choices — only 61 percent of North Carolinians and 25 percent of people around the world are able to log onto the networks bloggers like us take for granted.

The global figure remains low despite major increases (500 percent or more) in Internet use in Asia, the Middle East and Africa during the past decade. Take a look at all the stats and you’ll see there’s a long way to go before the divide is bridged between those plugged in and those still disconnected. Developing countries already have a host of barriers — many political or cultural — keeping them from reaching economic prosperity. A citizenry unable to use networks that are now essential lifelines for any large business severely handicaps that nation’s prospects.

And bare-bones Internet access is only scratching the surface of the issue. Even in North America, where the figure is a more robust 74 percent, there’s a wide disparity among connection speeds, a real problem as anyone using dial-up knows all too well. Others counted as users only have access at work, school or in libraries, restricting them from leveraging the Internet’s full potential. And then there’s the regular “users” who lack the knowledge and computer skills to do much more than just browse the web. They also stand to fall behind professionally without the right training.

It’s these disparities that we have to keep in mind when thinking about the Internet. Access isn’t as free and easy as we might like to think, and connecting is just the first step.