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From Digital Divide to Digital Equity

March 12 marked the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners Lee.  The web has enabled people around the globe to innovate in ways previously unimagined, collaborate with ease across oceans, and spur revolution.  Imagine explaining the history and wonders of the web to someone who has never heard of it.  Your narrative might include the early days of dial up, receiving AOL compact discs in the mail, the sudden ubiquity of email in school and the workplace, the rise and fall of Napster, applying for jobs online, no longer reading the newspaper on paper, social media, and working in the cloud.

Thoroughly impressed, and at this point also looking to the sky in search of the cloud you are working in, your WWW novitiate might then ask if everyone can access the web.  How would you explain that in one of the richest nations on earth, home to global centers of innovation, commerce, media, and higher learning that the answer to this question depends upon a person’s location, age, race, income, education level, and what kind of access they are willing to settle for?

Significant progress has been made in addressing the digital divide since the phenomena was introduced to the nation by President Bill Clinton in his 2000 State of the Union Address.  In 1997, just 18% of US households had access to the Internet.  The most recent data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project indicates that 76% of Americans 18 and over now use the Internet at home.  The vast majority of these home Internet users have adopted high-speed home broadband, the technology that makes full online engagement possible (92% based on 70% of home Internet users being broadband adopters).  In fact, the Census Bureau’s 2011 Current Population Survey reveals that 98% of households are located in areas that have access to broadband.  For reasons ranging from affordability of home subscriptions to views about the utility of broadband in the home, an astounding one hundred million Americans have yet to adopt this technology.

A mapping project by the Open Technology Institute highlighted in Atlantic Cities paints a rather bleak picture of home broadband adoption in several major American cities.  The maps show census tracts in most of the cities, more often than not in low-income neighborhoods, where adoption of home broadband sits at 0-20%.  Frequently abutting these pockets of incredibly low adoption are census tracts where adoption appears to be in better shape but still lags behind the nationwide adoption level of 70%.  These are the same urban geographies that are the focus of concerted effort by residents, schools, institutes of higher education, non-profit organizations, and levels of government from municipal to federal to improve educational outcomes, create on-ramps to 21st century career tracks, and promote health and wellness.  Imagine setting your sights on a goal in one of these domains only to be told that in order to move forward, you will need to depend on your smartphone and whatever other Internet access you manage to come across.  Millions of low-income youth and adults whose budgets cannot absorb the expense of home broadband are being asked to do just that.

The digital divide might now be better understood as a murky digital chasm full of rapidly evolving state and federal laws governing the telecommunications industry, mega mergers, and pressing concerns about the end of “net neutrality”. Those incurring the greatest cost while all of this plays out are the 100 million people working hard to make due with sub optimal access via mobile devices, 3 hour waits for 30 minute slots at public libraries, and free WiFi at McDonald’s and coffee shops.  Limited, second tier access must no longer hinder their educational, professional, health, and civic ambitions.  To achieve equity in access to resources and opportunities, we must move past the digital divide and problem solve in new ways to achieve digital equity.

With that said, we need a coherent strategy to integrate home broadband adoption efforts into the facets of city planning and urban policy that focus on creating neighborhoods, cities, and metro areas of opportunity for all people.  This will require that cities aggressively pursue adoption among low-income households in the near term while simultaneously digging into the long game of securing access to the future-proof fiber optic infrastructure they need to compete in the 21st century global innovation economy.

While some cities have fully embraced the short-term challenge of connecting all residents to affordable high-speed broadband in the home, far more remain on the sidelines.  Those who are ready to make this a major priority could learn a great deal from cities whose work is already in motion.  Some partner with telecommunications companies to increase enrollment in subsidized home broadband subscriptions.  Where affordable options are lacking or nonexistent, citizens have increasingly taken matters into their own hands and built mesh networks to serve their neighborhoods.  Some cities have gathered up the financial and political capital to offer Fiber to the Home (FTTH), either by building their own fiber optic networks or developing creative strategies to activate existing infrastructure.  We stand to learn a great deal from these and other cases about how the unique collection of assets, interests, and needs spanning a city’s neighborhoods and institutions can advance home broadband adoption.

Carefully crafted partnerships with broadband service providers and the installation of neighborhood based mesh networks may be the most direct short-term path to increasing home broadband adoption in many cities.  However, when thinking through what American cities need to compete on the world stage and afford all residents every opportunity possible now and in the years to come, it is becoming increasingly apparent that fiber optic infrastructure is the best bet.  An investment of between $50-$90 billion (80% of which would be spent on labor, and thus invested directly in jobs within the local community) would connect most households in America and support high-speed Internet needs for the next 40-50 years.  Several recent announcements, one from Google and another from the Federal Communications Commission suggest that a fiber future is gaining momentum nationwide.

Ultimately, the path to digital equity will require the development of robust economic models that maximize the short- and long-term human outcomes of home broadband adoption.  These models will enable us to better understand how increasing home broadband adoption can act as an economic multiplier on local, state, and federal investments that aim to make the ecology of the city one of opportunity for all people.  In so doing, cities will ensure that all Americans can thrive as citizens of the 21st century.

Featured image courtesy of wise at Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Anne Schwieger

About the Author : Anne SchwiegerAnne Schwieger is a Boston based city planner working to advance digital equity in American cities through a new initiative called the Digital Equity Project.  She tweets at @DigEquity and @AnneSchwieger.  Email her at anne@digitalequityproject.com.View all posts by Anne Schwieger

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