America’s Digital Divide, 30 Years From Now

As more aspects of our lives move online and grow dependent on fast-speed Internet, new data on broadband access in the U.S. show a widening gap that leaves behind the poor, rural areas, and minorities. While the majority of Americans with high-speed Internet gain easier and faster access to an information-based world, an equally significant number of people stand to miss out or lag behind on education, job and business opportunities, healthcare services, entertainment and culture—and grow more isolated.

Exploring the Digital Nation,” a recently released report by the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration, found a strong correlation between broadband adoption and income. While 7-out-of-10 households in the U.S. enjoyed broadband service in 2010, the rate dropped to 4-out-of-10 in households with annual incomes below $25,000. However, socio-economic factors alone do not account for the racial, ethnic and geographic lines of the digital divide. According to the report, only 65 percent of Black and 67 percent of Hispanic households had a computer; and only 55/57 respectively subscribed to broadband—compared with 72 percent of whites.

In “The New Digital Divide,” an essay published in The New York Times, author Susan Crawford, a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy, divides the Internet into two marketplaces: “high-speed wired and second-class wireless”—superhighway versus “bike path,” as she puts it. Referring to the same report, Crawford notes that while 200 million Americans are wired at home, millions more remain offline, and are economically or geographically limited to phone-line connections or smartphone wireless—subject to carriers’ data caps and slow connection speeds.

The high-cost of wired infrastructure, its concentration in urban and suburban areas, and a lack of alternatives or competition in less populated areas, contributes to rising costs and increased adoption of wireless only. And so it is that, according to Crawford, the U.S. ranked 12th in broadband access among other developed countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Crawford credits other nations’ progress on regulatory policy that promotes competition and lower prices.

OECD Graphic

More importantly, when economic concerns continue to justify hardships for the most vulnerable and breaks for the wealthiest among us, Ms. Crawford makes a compelling economic case for high-speed information access:

The new digital divide raises important questions about social equity in an information-driven world. But it is also a matter of protecting our economic future. Thirty years from now, African-Americans and Latinos, who are at the greatest risk of being left behind in the Internet revolution, will be more than half of our work force. If we want to be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure every American has truly high-speed wired access to the Internet for a reasonable cost.