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Americans Cut Off From Opportunity Without Equal Access to the Internet

March 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Internet use is now so ubiquitous in the U.S. that not having access or online literacy can create major hurdles. As part of the NewsHour's series on broadband technology and its effect on society, Hari Sreenivasan explores the so-called digital divide with Vicky Rideout of VJR Consulting and former FCC official Karen Kornbluh.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we explore the so-called digital divide, the gap in access to the Internet and the challenges posed by how we use it even when we’re wired in.

It’s been a concern for the Federal Communications Commission. Today, that agency’s head, Julius Genachowski, announced that he will be stepping down soon.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story, the last in our series on broadband and how it’s changing our habits, our work, and our communities.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: If you have connectivity, but you don’t know how to use the programs and the software, it doesn’t really help.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s outgoing FCC Chairman Genachowski last month on a new effort to close the so-called digital divide.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: If you don’t have the digital literacy, you can’t even apply for a job and increasingly you’re not eligible for a lot of the jobs being that are created in our economy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Approximately 100 million Americans still don’t have broadband access. A disproportionate number are people of color, lower income or with less education.

LEE RAINIE, Pew Research Center: In the broadband world, we still see digital divides.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lee Rainie runs Internet studies for the Pew Research Center.

LEE RAINIE: When it comes to age, older people are less likely to be online than younger people. Education — the more education you have, the more likely it is to have broadband at home. Income still matters a lot. The higher you have, the more likely you are to use the Internet. In the rural areas, there are still concerns about access to broadband.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s increasing concern over the way broadband is being used among different groups, whether spending more time on social networks, streaming television programs and movies and playing games is at the expense of educational advancement, managing finances and pursuing job opportunities.

This week, the Ad Council launched the website EveryoneOn.org, part of a nationwide campaign from to increase digital literacy.

For more on the digital divide, we turn to Vicky Rideout. She is the author of several studies about children and media. She currently runs VJR Consulting and is an editor at The Journal of Children and Media. And Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, who stepped down recently as the U.S. representative to the OECD, or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. She also served as assistant chief at the FCC, where she worked on broadband access.

So, Karen Kornbluh, let me start with you. Where do you see the divide? How do you see it playing out?

KAREN KORNBLUH, Former FCC Official: Well, Hari, this is such a technical issue, it’s a good idea to step back and remember why we care.

And the reason we care is because the Internet has become the innovation platform. It’s where we all come together to collaborate and innovate. And we all know we need more growth. If we don’t have equal access, then we can’t have equal access to jobs and growth.

And I think there are really three kinds of divides, and you heard that in the intro. There’s a divide in access to today’s technology. And there, we see that a third of Americans don’t have access to the Internet, and it’s much higher levels for African-Americans, Hispanics, lower-income Americans.

Then there’s access to tomorrow’s technology. And what we’re talking about there is the very high speeds. And mobile can help ray great deal, but we’re facing a spectrum crunch. So the FCC is doing what it can to get more spectrum available through auctions.

The third kind of divide we were talking about in the~ preceding segment where we talked about education, the divide in terms of digital literacy and access to skills and education. And technology, the Internet should be used to close the divide that we have in this country in education. What we don’t want is unequal access to increase the divide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vicky Rideout, you’re still studying these. How do you see it?

VICKY RIDEOUT, VJR Consulting: Well, I think that what Ambassador Kornbluh says is exactly right.

We do still have a digital divide. And I think sometimes there’s a temptation to say, well, the fact that we have mobile access now has kind of solved the digital divide. All schools are connected, so we have solved the digital divide.

But, really, there is a very big difference in the quality of online access between the haves and have-notes. And when it comes to children, which is what I study in particular and I’m most concerned with, lower-income kids are still at a very real disadvantage, if you’re looking at kids who are trying to research their homework online, or who are wanting to apply to colleges or financial aid online or looking for jobs online.

That’s not something that is very easily done on a smartphone, if you happen to be one of the lower-income kids who has a smartphone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Karen Kornbluh, let’s talk a little bit about that seeming literacy gap, where if I have access and if I have the means and the education, maybe I’m taking an online course, whereas maybe if I don’t have that, I’m playing an online game.

KAREN KORNBLUH: Exactly.

There’s that difference where you’re a passive consumer of the Internet vs. an active participant and you’re really learning how to do self-guided education. One of the great success stories we have had in this country is the E-Rate. It’s a very little known program, but it’s been hugely successful.

In 1996, if you were a teacher in a classroom, you didn’t have access to a phone. A kid got sick, you would have to go to the principal’s office and leave your kids alone because there was no phone. Now over 90 percent of classrooms have an Internet connection because of this program. But it’s not yet that high-speed ubiquitous kind of connection.

If we look at where the South Koreans are, they show us where we need to go. What they’re talking about is a real ubiquitous education using technology, where there is going to be great access at home, great access in the school, the teachers are going to be trained, and you’re really going to be able to completely upgrade people’s education using that technology.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Vicky Rideout, I also wanted to touch base a little bit on not just the literacy gap, but that gap that’s physically still present. As Karen just mentioned, some of those classrooms don’t have access yet or perhaps in rural areas, as Lee Rainie was mentioning, right?

VICKY RIDEOUT: Well, what we have seen is there have been some great successes as far as public policy goes. And that’s thanks to folks at the FCC.

And that’s why the fact that the chairman of the FCC has just stepped down, and his replacement will be a very important pick for this president, because we do need somebody who will put the public interest first. We have had some successes, so that you find that low-income and high-income kids are just as likely to use the Internet at school.

But it’s at home that you see the biggest gaps in terms of the quality of their access. And you were talking before about the difference in terms of the types of things that people do with the Internet, whether it’s used mostly for entertainment or whether folks are taking the best possible advantage of some of the educational content there.

And I think that’s really another question for policy-makers and educators is whether we are making the most of that technology. Whether it’s for low-income kids or high-income kids, are we really making sure that the technology is reaching its highest promise as far as providing high-quality educational content for kids who need it?

And I think that’s more the question than what the individual kids are doing with it, because low-income kids and high-income kids, kids from lower-educated parents and kids from parents with higher educations are all mainly using computers and new technologies for things like playing games and social networking and watching YouTube videos.

So we have to make sure that there’s the good-quality content and services for them as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sure.

Karen, I also want to talk a little bit about — you said earlier tomorrow’s technology, and one of the ways that the digital divide to access has decreased is through mobile. So, where do you see that fitting in?

KAREN KORNBLUH: So, that’s a tremendous opportunity.

But, as Vicky said, too often kids are using it to waste time. They talked about the time-wasting gap, because the lower-income kids are using it to do passive things like watch videos or play games. And so what we need to do is get great content online.

And that’s one of the things the South Koreans are showing us how to do and other countries. They’re getting great content online. And I have heard about some experiments here where some of the game companies are actually teaming up with educators to try to develop some new technologies.

But that’s a real role I think for public policy, both in terms of getting greater broadband into the schools with this E-Rate, solving the spectrum crunch with these new incentive auctions, and then also getting really good content online that is educational and fun and engaging.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vicky Rideout, how is mobile reshaping this landscape?

VICKY RIDEOUT: Well, it has certainly expanded access a lot, and that’s very important.

But, as I say, it’s the quality of that access that is still — where there’s still a gap. In my family, we have got a couple of high school kids who are applying for colleges and applying for financial aid. That’s not something you can do with a mobile device. We have got another family member who is unemployed looking for work, not something you can do very effectively with a mobile device.

So it’s important in helping to bridge that gap, but it doesn’t do it alone. And I think this is a perfect example of where we have to consciously use public policy, as Ambassador Kornbluh said, to make sure these technologies are helping to reduce inequalities and don’t end up exacerbating them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Vicky Rideout, Karen Kornbluh, thanks so much.

KAREN KORNBLUH: Thank you.

VICKY RIDEOUT: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can watch our previous stories about high-speed broadband. All that is on our website.