The Net @ Risk: The New Digital Divide
|Backgrounder: The New Digital Divide|
"The Net at Risk" explains why America lags so far behind the rest of the industrialized world in broadband access to the Internet. Industry watchdogs say it is a history of broken promises to bring the "information superhighway" to every U.S. home and business. Once a technology leader in the Internet revolution, the United States has fallen into the teens in the world rankings of Internet access for its citizens. In some places-among them Japan, Iceland, Korea, and the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia-consumers get Internet connections that are significantly more powerful than what is available in the U.S. for the same price most Americans pay. Why? ... [more]
Class Is in Session...
"The Net at Risk," Internet scholar and media critic Robert McChesney describes the development of the Internet as the type of revolution that has come along only two or three times in all of human existence. It is the culmination, he contends, of a revolution that began with the birth of language 60,000 years ago. McChesney is not alone in equating the digital revolution with major historical shifts like the industrial revolution, which changed nearly every aspect of life-including political systems, economic power, gender roles, and where and how we live.
When you look at what we are able to do online now that we could not do even a few years ago, you can see examples of the potential of this new technological enterprise. Students can complete a university degree online. Employees from around the world collaborate on projects. People can be encouraged to take a greater role in democracy through the ease of online voting. Doctors in urban areas can diagnose patients in rural areas or consult with colleagues on difficult cases. Parents can keep on top of their child's homework and be in contact with their teacher. Aspiring authors can avoid publisher rejection letters and go straight to their readers online. Computer professionals can often repair their client's software glitches virtually. Users can even lend their expertise to the community-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia. And anyone with a computer can become a broadcaster, movie producer, journalist, or musician.
The Internet is pretty remarkable to those who remember this scene from the World's Fair less than 50 years ago.
But for a whole generation, it's nearly impossible to imagine a pre-Internet world. Even the thought of being tethered to a telephone line is a distant memory, if it's a memory they have at all! Ben and Becca, ages 11 and 9, sat in the back seat of their aunt's car sending instant messages from their iBooks to their father using the wireless connection accessible from the driveway of their home. They were first confused, then indignant when they lost their connection as the car pulled out of the driveway. They assumed that the Internet was like air or water. To them, it is something that should always be there. On demand! At will! 24/7! And, many adults return from other countries surprised at how unconnected their U.S. lives seem in comparison.
The truth is that they can have the kind of 24/7, instantaneous, on-demand access they expect-in dozens of other countries. Just not here in the United States, the birthplace of the Internet. (Find out about communities setting up their own municipal networks.)
Here's a quiz Question: What do South Korea, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden Norway, Israel, Japan, Finland, and Singapore have in common?
Answer: All have a higher percentage of inhabitants hooked up to broadband than the United States, and many of them are adding a greater percentage of their population every year than we are. Only 11.4 percent of the U.S. population had broadband subscriptions in 2005, compared with more than double that amount in the Republic of Korea.
The international divide
In this country we often talk of a digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Indeed, this technological divide between rural and urban, wealthy and poor, persists. And when it comes to an international digital divide, the U.S. as a nation falls closer to the "have not" side of the equation than our economic rivals in every measure of broadband-subscribership, price, speed, and investment.
We still have the largest number of broadband subscribers in the world, but we lag behind other countries in the number of subscribers per capita, or what is referred to as "broadband penetration." This is an important measure of our economic competitiveness.
Plus, we are adding new broadband users at a slower rate than many countries, thus losing ground in broadband penetration. In March 2005, we ranked 17th in broadband penetration among countries surveyed. By March 2006, we had dropped to 20th place. In our increasingly online world, high-speed broadband has a direct impact on a nation's ability to roll out products faster, more efficiently, and more effectively.
Broadband has the potential to become the vehicle for distributing all forms of data-telephone, television, radio, and the Internet-making it an indispensable part of economic, personal, and public life. Even if you don't know what a megabit is, you'll likely still be startled to learn that most Japanese can access a high-speed connection that's more than 10 times faster than what's available here, for just $22 per month. And that's not all. They are now rolling out ultra-high speed access that is more than 500 times faster than what the Federal Communications Commission defines as "broadband." This chart illustrates where the U.S. ranks internationally when it comes to speed and price.
So what exactly is broadband and why does it matter?
Broadband, or high-speed, Internet access is made possible by a series of technologies that give users the ability to send and receive data at volumes and speeds far greater than traditional telephone lines. In addition, broadband is "always on." No waiting for those clicks, beeps, and whirring sounds before you are connected! Even more important, you can send and receive data at the same time. Broadband technology can be delivered by cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), wireless, fiber, and satellite.
Fiber-optic cables are long, thin strands of glass that transmit bursts of laser light and carry information faster than any copper wire. The tiny glass fibers connect homes around the world to the information superhighway -- around 40 times faster than the broadband most Americans get from their cable or phone company.
Broadband is especially important nowadays because content on the Web is becoming sophisticated and increasingly includes video and audio applications. Users can interact with historical characters in virtual settings, families can share videos online, company employees can teleconference from far-flung areas of the world, and doctors can collaborate with colleagues on difficult diagnoses-these are just some of the amazing online opportunities that contribute to our economic, educational, and social well-being. But sending and accessing such data also requires large "pipes." Anyone who is still relying on telephone modem connections with a speed of 56K (that "click, beep, and whirring" technology) will grow old waiting for much of the new content to download.
Broadband is not just a convenience. It is important to our economy. In 2002, Gartner Inc., a research and advisory firm, found that implementation of "true" broadband (10 Mbps)-considerably faster than what most Americans use-could bolster the U.S. GDP by $500 billion a year because of new jobs, new technologies, new equipment, and new software designs.
Where's the fiber?
There are plenty of ideas about why the United States is lagging behind but very little agreement. Here are just a few of the perspectives.
In "The Net at Risk," telecom industry watchers Bruce Kushnick and Tom Allibone of Teletruth a consumer advocacy group which has published an e-book, $200 Billion Broadband Scandal, fault the telephone companies for not fulfilling the promises they made in the 1990s to provide fiber-optic connections to households. Had their grand plans been implemented, 86 million customers in the United States would have received much faster service than is currently available.
Remember this chart?
Some organizations, like Free Press, a nonpartisan media policy group, say the United States is falling behind because it does not have a comprehensive national broadband policy. While the American approach of promoting competition by broadband providers may have yielded some new investment in the long-haul market and the local business market, our investment in broadband facilities for local residential customers remains far lower than in other countries.
Some critics fault the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to determine whether "advanced telecommunications capability (i.e., broadband or high-speed access) is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." If it is not, the legislation directs the FCC to "take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market."
The FCC reports on its progress and consistently asserts that this goal is being met, that advanced telecommunications capability is indeed being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis to all Americans. But critics disagree, citing America's continuing drop in international broadband-penetration rankings, the comparatively low speed the FCC uses to define "broadband" (200 kpbs), and the use of zip codes as a measure of success-when only one broadband subscriber in a particular zip code constitutes regional "penetration."
Too much regulation?
Some, like the Cato Institute think tank, oppose making the FCC more proactive when it comes to broadband deployment. They argue that the Telecom Act is flawed and that Congress and the FCC should completely deregulate the telecommunications industry. According to the Cato Institute, "the Telecom Act is a statute at war with itself … Congress attempted to engineer a illogical balancing act between the contradictory goals of promoting increased competition and that of preserving the regulatory status quo." (Learn more about media regulation)
Congress has taken up the issue of broadband access, the impact of telecommunications regulation, and new technologies on broadband deployment. Some say it's about time, while others worry that regulations will not be strategic, well-thought-out, or result in prescriptive action. Clearly this will be an important issue to watch in the coming year. Stay apprised of the deliberations in Congress over the pending telecommunications legislation. (Learn more about net neutrality legislation)
- How has the Internet impacted your life?
- How do you foresee the Internet having an impact on you in the future?
- What do you wish for when you think about the online world?
- When you hear that other countries are implementing broadband with faster speeds to a higher percentage of their population than the United States, what concerns does that raise for you?
- Can you imagine, or have you already experienced, any impact from our declining status?
- Have you traveled abroad and experienced higher broadband speeds or wider coverage?
- If we were to develop a national policy, how should we go about it, and what should it include?