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Business Impact

Closing the Digital Divide Isn’t Easy—But We Have to Try

The poorest people, who might benefit most from Internet access, are often the least likely to have it.

Almost as soon as there was a World Wide Web, people worried about the “digital divide.” In the summer of 1995, the new National Telecommunications and Information Administration published a report, “Falling through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America.” NTIA administrator Larry Irving and a White House aide named Albert Hammond began using the phrase to refer to inequality of access to information services. Vice President Al Gore spoke of it in his speeches.

More than 20 years later, it’s easy to think that the digital divide has nearly closed, like a healing wound. In the United States, 88 percent of the population has Internet access of some sort; globally, the figure is around 40 percent. According to various estimates, there will be more than six billion smartphones in the world by 2020, used by around 70 percent of the global population.

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But even in the United States, as David Talbot writes in “The Hole in the Digital Economy,” the poorest people, who might benefit most from Internet access, are often the least likely to have it.

Talbot writes, “Most homes in the United States have Internet service, but they don’t in the poor parts of Cleveland … A survey in 2012 showed that 58 percent of the area’s households with incomes under $20,000 had neither home broadband nor mobile Internet access, often because of the cost … Until recently, one such household was a ground-floor two-bedroom apartment in a public housing project called Outh­waite Homes, where a circumspect 13-year-old girl named Ma’Niyah Larry lives with her mother, Marcella.”

Under a special-education plan to improve her mathematical skills, Ma’Niyah is supposed to solve problems and watch videos offered online by Khan Academy. But Marcella can’t afford Time Warner’s broadband fee of $50 a month, and although the family owns a smartphone, it’s hard to solve problems on the tiny screen, and a few hours of math videos would exhaust their phone’s data plan. The local library has high-speed Internet, but “it’s so bad down here that it’s not really safe to walk outside,” Marcella says.

Digital evangelists once made strong claims for the economic and social benefits that would flow from closing the divide. Few experts are as confident today, but no one would dispute the assessment of the White House Council of Economic Advisers: “The digital divide is likely both a cause and a consequence of other demographic disparities.” Without digital access, a long list of modern activities, including online education, are impossible. The digital divide separates and traps the poor.

Cleveland’s public housing agency has given Ma’Niyah a tablet and a wireless hotspot in a trial to help close the “homework gap,” but such pilot projects aren’t a solution for thousands of families. Happily, a nonprofit named DigitalC plans to extend a fiber-optic network that connects Cleveland’s hospitals (built with a 2009 federal stimulus grant) to the city’s housing projects, using a millimeter-wave transmission system from a company called Siklu. The plan would bring gigabyte-per-second connections to the city’s public housing, and in combination with an FCC subsidy, it would make broadband practical for most tenants in the projects.

That’s good. But what about the millions in America’s inner cities and rural communities who can’t count on a project like Cleveland’s DigitalC? The most plausible solution is to stimulate competition among broadband providers. Sometimes competition will be made possible by government investments in infrastructure: local, state, or federal monies would subsidize the building of fiber-optic networks. Sometimes governments can remove red tape to encourage investment: then any company, not just those that own physical conduits like utility poles, can easily add new fiber. Competition to reduce costs and increase speeds has narrowed the digital divide in a number of American cities, including Huntsville, Alabama, and Kansas City. Of course, the approach has any number of problems, especially in the countryside. But if we don’t try, too many children like Ma’Niyah Larry will find it harder to learn.

Tell me what you think: write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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