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From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered blogging, citizen journalism and wikis. This week I’ll look at the digital divide.

What Is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide is the chasm separating the haves and have-nots in digital technology. On one side are people who can afford or who have access to computers, a high-speed broadband connection and the plethora of services from online banking to social networking to blogging. On the other side of the equation are people who cannot afford the technology, cannot get broadband access because of their location, or who have learning or cultural limitations to using the technology.

There are many digital divides: Rural and urban; poor and rich, African-American and white; old and young; disabled and able; developing nation and developed nation. All these factors have been studied and solutions have been debated for years. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about such a divide in one of his last speeches four days before he died in 1968:

There can be no gainsaying about the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today…That is, a technological revolution with the impact of automation and cybernation…Modern man through scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance. Through our genius we have made this world a neighborhood. And yet we — we have not yet had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.

(Read more about King and the modern day digital divide on this blog post by Bonnie Bracey Sutton at the Digital Divide Network.)

The causes of the digital divide range from the high price of technology and broadband to the lack of electricity and education in the developing world. While many online media publishers and high-tech startups tout the fact that their audience has a desired demographic for marketers (high income urban dwellers), the less desired demographic is left out in the cold and cannot participate in new online communities or interact electronically with their government.

One of the problems is redlining, when telecoms refuse to provide Internet services to rural areas or low-income areas where they won’t reap enough profits in the short term. The companies have responded with some low-cost options and tout the future of WiMax technology that will blanket rural areas with broadband wireless service.

Various groups have sprouted up to help bridge the digital divide, both in the U.S. and abroad. The Communications Workers of America, part of the giant AFL-CIO labor union, has launched Speed Matters, a website that calls for a “national high speed broadband policy” from the U.S. government that would mirror past policies that helped develop canals and the railroad system. The United Nations has had two World Summits on the Information Society to help address the global problem of the digital divide. A group called One Laptop per Child aims to provide cheap computers for impoverished children around the globe.

Current Research

By definition, the various digital divides are closing over time to some extent. More people are adopting digital technologies as the costs drop and very few people who have computers abandon them completely. In the U.S., Nielsen/NetRatings found that 78% of residential Internet users had broadband connections last November, up from 65% a year earlier. But as far as total broadband penetration in the entire population, the U.S. came in 16th place among the top 20 economies worldwide in 2005, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

As for demographic divides among U.S. Internet users as a whole (not just broadband), the Pew Internet & American Life Project has made some broad conclusions.

“Our general finding is that there is no ‘divide’ between whites and English-speaking Hispanics,” Pew Internet director Lee Rainie told me via email. “The gap has narrowed a bit for blacks compared with whites, but there is a continuing, persistent difference in Internet adoption between blacks and whites. The much bigger divides are between young and old and between the well-educated and less-well-educated.”

Pew Internet’s most recent survey from December 2006 showed the stark differences in Internet usage among various groups in the U.S. More than 80% of people aged 18 to 49 use the Internet, while only 33% of those older than 65 do. And in racial groups, 72% of whites and 69% of English-speaking Hispanics use the Net, while 58% of African-Americans do. Plus, 59% of those with a high school education use the Internet, while 91% of college-educated folks do.

You can follow the way these numbers have fluctuated over the past seven years by downloading Pew spreadsheets from its excellent Trends page. What Pew has found is that people who have access to high-speed broadband connections are more likely to create and read blogs, share photos and video and interact in social networks. Those without broadband are being left behind, using the Internet less and at slower speeds, and are missing opportunities to gain crucial experience with the multimedia web.

Heavy Rhetoric, Little Action

Very few people remember a speech by President George W. Bush on March 26, 2004, in which he called for affordable broadband access for everyone.

“This country needs a national goal for the spread of broadband technology,” Bush said. “We ought to have universal affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007 and then we ought to make sure, as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have choices when it comes to their carrier.”

As 2007 dawns, we obviously do not have universal affordable access to broadband, and consumers have little choice for providers outside of the duopoly of cable and telephone carriers. Last November, Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps wrote a scathing editorial in the Washington Post called America’s Internet Disconnect. In it, he explained the high stakes of ignoring the digital divide:

The stakes for our economy could not be higher. Our broadband failure places a ceiling over the productivity of far too much of the country. Should we expect small-town businesses to enter the digital economy, and students to enter the digital classroom, via a dial-up connection? The Internet can bring life-changing opportunities to those who don’t live in large cities, but only if it is available and affordable. Even in cities and suburbs, the fact that broadband is too slow, too expensive and too poorly subscribed is a significant drag on our economy. Some experts estimate that universal broadband adoption would add $500 billion to the U.S. economy and create 1.2 million jobs.

As for solutions, Copps says the FCC should update the way it defines broadband — it counts speeds as slow as 200 kilobits per second as broadband — and work toward lowering prices and introducing more competition.

The solution to our broadband crisis must ultimately involve public-private initiatives like those that built the railroad, highway and telephone systems. Combined with an overhaul of our universal service system to make sure it is focusing on the needs of broadband, this represents our best chance at recapturing our leadership position.

Many states and cities are not waiting for a national solution, and are studying ways of laying down their own high-speed pipes or launching municipal WiFi networks for cheap access. New York’s new governor Elliot Spitzer made news in his State of the State speech by calling for universal broadband access to the entire state by the end of his first term.

“If you’re a child growing up in South Korea, your Internet is 10 times faster at half the price than if you’re a child growing up in the Southern Tier or in the South Bronx,” said Spitzer. “New Yorkers on the wrong side of the divide simply cannot compete in today’s economy.”

Societal Effects

Beyond the political rhetoric and research numbers, there are real people stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide in communities around the nation and the world. Sue Shipitalo, who is trying to help bridge the divide in rural Ohio, wrote to me about her own personal experience having to use dial-up.

“I find the issue of broadband access important in so many ways, the unequality of accessing basic information,” she said via email. “Those who have high speed access can’t imagine living without it. For me when I hear ‘go online to view the rest of this segment’ or ‘access our podcast,’ I know that those things are out of reach for me. I feel left out. My kids are left out.”

In an editorial in her local newspaper, Shipitalo made an eloquent case for universal access by mentioning three times she could not access information online — from government sites — because she was using a dial-up line. While she has worked hard to bring attention to the problem, she has grown tired of all the talk with little action:

So, we have need and we have talk. Who does the issue of equal access to the Internet fall to in our area? Where is the leadership going to come from to pursue this issue which is so important to economic development and the personal development of the residents of Coshocton County [in Ohio]? How important is coordinating the efforts, both public and private, to best research and utilize the resources available to us?

Our volunteer groups have worked hard to illustrate the need for improved technology services. However, I believe that resources need to be dedicated to developing a strategic technology plan for our Coshocton County. More importantly, there needs to be a central coordination of efforts where information can be exchanged and utilized for the benefit of all.

The irony is that one of the best ways the county could coordinate these efforts is through a website and digital technologies — but it would have to accommodate dial-up users.

News & Resources

Here are some recent news stories and blog posts on the subject of the digital divide:

AT&T to Offer $20 ‘Naked’ DSL Service in USA Today

America’s New Digital Divide by Steve Rubel at Micropersuasion

The New Digital Divide by J. Angelo Racoma at the Blog Herald

Digital Divide: The Three Stages by Jakob Nielsen

City and Cox Cable Near Agreement, Should Make Deal by the Arizona Daily Star

NJ Counties Collaborating on Plans for Wireless Zone by the Associated Press

Telstra Says New Broadband Plans Will End Digital Divide in Australia by Rural Press Interactive

Here are websites you can visit to learn more about the digital divide:

Digital Divide entry in Wikipedia

Global Digital Divide entry in Wikipedia

Global Digital Divide world map (as seen above) in Wikipedia

Overview of Digital Divide by the International Telecommunication Union

Digital Divide Network communities, discussion boards and blogs

The Digital Equity Toolkit from the National Institute for Community Innovations

PBS Learning.Now blog’s Digital Divide category

FCC’s Universal Service page

Home Broadband Adoption 2006 report by Pew Internet & American Life Project

Teachers Without Borders

What do you think? Is the digital divide a fading problem or a glaring one that needs to be addressed? What solutions can you envision? If you know of other good online resources, please drop me a note or include them in the comments below and I’ll update this guide.

UPDATE: I’ve heard from a digital-divide denier, of sorts. Slate media columnist Jack Shafer told me he thinks it’s a “bogus issue” when you look at the history of technological advancements. Here’s his argument sent via email:

Was there a “color TV” divide in the late 1950s? A “telephone” divide at the beginning of the 20th century? A “cell phone” divide in 1990? You can add to that the microwave-oven divide, the automobile divide, the videogame divide, and the video recorder divide.

If you were to sit down and compare how much it costs to get on the web in 1995 dollars (cost of computer plus online service) and today, what would you learn? This is from PR Newswire in late 1995, for a middle of the road PC: $2,340 for an OptiPlex XL 5100 slimline 100MHz Pentium processor, with 8MB RAM, a 540MB hard drive, 15LS color monitor, Windows 95 or Windows 3.11, and a mouse.

Memory tells me that a dial-up AOL account account cost about $22 in 1995. Today, you can get a NetZero account for $9.95 and 1) buy a new decent laptop that is a gazillion times more powerful and flexible than the desktop I note above for under $1K (maybe even $500!). If you wanted to buy a used desktop in very good shape your cost is probably close to $200. And it’s about 100 times better than the 1995 machine. Oh, I should mention that $2,340 in 1995 money is $2,900 in today’s dollars.

In other words, it’s never been cheaper to get onto the Net than today. People need to get their heads on straight about this.

While that might be true, there might be deeper causes around the divide than simply cost. There might be a cultural issue and definitely an educational issue. You might have the money to get a computer and go online, but do you have the basic training to use it? What do you think about Shafer’s argument?

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