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.


2 thoughts on “America’s Digital Divide, 30 Years From Now

  1. This post is “right up my alley”. In my ongoing studies I am exploring issues of the divide … but from a different angle: In my opinion, “the connected ones” are the losers as much as the people without broadband or even without any internet. The digital divide is almost invariably portrayed as though the high-speed technology-driven members of a population (or of the world population, if we go up in a spaceship and look back at Earth) have something of high value, and those who do not have the technology and the access are the knowledge-impoverished masses who would just benefit so much from everything we have, if only it could be shared to them.

    I do not refute this, of course it is true! But I call into question the one-sidedness, the intellectual supremacy, the patronizing perspective. (I do NOT mean you personally! I refer to the way the digital divide has been viewed to date by our whole society. Including the ones who are being patronized. Incuding me. Maybe including Ms. Crawford.) I call into question our failure to look at the wisdom and skills and social history possessed by “the unconnectedones” that _we_ do not hear, do not benefit from. As much as the divide stops the flow of so much collective knowledge from reaching across to those who do not interact in the digital realm, it also stops the voice of so huge a sector of the human race from being heard by those of us who increasingly turn almost exclusively to the Web for our information, our interactions, our cross-pollination of ideas.

    Yes, the gap needs to be bridged. In two directions.

    • Inkazar,

      I am in full agreement with you! In fact, some of the most inspiring, creative and resourceful people I know don’t even own a computer, let alone have access to the Internet. So, yes, if we rely only on what we can find online, we are burning bridges. And if we allow ourselves to think worst-case-scenarios, in the soon-approaching age of “the cloud,” the more we rely on the Internet, the more we stand to lose if connectivity should somehow collapse. Okay…I digress here.

      In more every-day terms…Internet-based connectivity isn’t everything, but, unfortunately, younger generations being born into it, are dismissing other types. Example: I’m back in school in my mid-40’s and have had to adapt to a huge trend toward so-called group work. If schools and teachers think that group/team work is actually taking place, they’re kidding themselves. In reality, group work turns into parceled work: you research this, I research that; we dump it into one power point template, and look like we worked together—that’s how my younger peers see group work. How’s that for connectivity?

      Thank you for engaging!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s