Will the next U.S. president close the digital divide for Americans without broadband access?

March 3, 2016 by J.j. Po-An Hsieh, The Conversation
If they build it, will you come? Credit: Doc Searls, CC BY

Most of the 2016 presidential candidates' policy platforms recognize the strategic importance of high-speed Internet (HSI), or broadband, in transforming the economy and spurring innovation.

The candidates appear motivated by a shared belief that high-speed Internet and HSI-enabled digital innovations – such as Uber, AirBnB, Amazon, Facebook, Google and so on – are driving economic growth and transforming society. The question then becomes what should be done to further unleash HSI's potential economic and societal benefits.

The candidates approach Internet issues from different perspectives, dividing along party lines. Suggestions by Republicans Cruz and Rubio about minimizing Internet-related taxes and enhancing cybersecurity are indeed important. But these policy platforms are more relevant to the so-called Internet Haves than to the Internet Have-nots who aren't online.

Only Democrats Clinton's and Sanders' stated policies aim to address the fundamental issue of the digital divide – the gap between those with digital technologies and access to high-speed Internet versus those without.

However, is what Clinton and Sanders endorse enough to get all Americans hooked up to blazing fast broadband and all it enables?

Pew Research Center

Current state of Internet access in the US

According to the Pew Research Center, the home broadband adoption rate in the U.S. dropped from 70 percent to 67 percent from 2012 to 2015.

Cost is a big factor for those who aren't connected. At the same time, the majority of Americans indicated that having home broadband access (rather than mobile Internet) is critical for many important life activities, including job hunting, access to health information or government services and so on.

Some families do rely on mobile phones as an alternative to HSI, mostly because of its greater affordability. But mobile service providers impose a data cap. And smartphones have limited capabilities compared to regular desktops or laptops, so mobile access isn't a perfect substitute.

Those who do not have or who rely on mobile Internet as their sole HSI access are usually socioeconomically disadvantaged (e.g., lower income, education), racial or ethnic minorities, and/or rural residents.

Research suggests lack of HSI limits education opportunities, career development and social mobility.

Platform plans

Both Democrats aim to address the digital divide by offering broadband access to those who currently lack it.

Sanders' platform asserts that HSI is "no longer a luxury" and he casts the digital divide as a rural infrastructure issue. By missing out on high-speed broadband access, rural residents aren't able to use it for "21st century commerce, education, telemedicine and public safety." Sanders' Rebuild America Act

would invest US$25 billion over five years to expand high-speed broadband networks in underserved and unserved areas, and would boost speeds and capacity all across the country, particularly in rural areas.

Sanders' website doesn't mention how he'd hope to finance this expansion.

Clinton's platform, too, stresses that HSI is "a necessity for equal opportunity and social mobility in a 21st-century economy."

Part of her infrastructure plan calls for connecting "all Americans to the digital economy."

She will finish the job of connecting America's households to the Internet with a commitment that by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have access to affordable broadband. She will also invest new resources in bringing free Wi-Fi to public buildings and public transportation.

Clinton says she will "harness both public and private capital" to make it all happen.

These free or affordable broadband access plans seem reasonable. But a critical question remains: will the digital divide be resolved simply by offering high-speed Internet access at low or even no cost to the have-nots?

My research suggests the answer is "maybe not."

More to it than just hooking up

The results of numerous initiatives that aimed to address the digital divide collectively suggest the digital divide is a multifaceted problem.

Take, for instance, the case of the LaGrange Free High-Speed Internet Initiative in Georgia. Even when the city made free high-speed Internet access available to everyone, only about 40 percent of the 10,000 eligible households signed up. One cannot help but ask: it's already free, why don't you adopt it?

It turns out that for digital have-nots, the challenges go well beyond just the financial and material barriers. The disadvantaged may also need motivation, knowledge, skills and even confidence in order to use digital technologies. They also need social support that provides the needed assistance and encouragement so as to hop on the Internet. And they may not have opportunities for meaningful use of the high-speed Internet.

To help the disadvantaged cross the divide requires an orchestrated effort coordinating the various necessary resources – financial, technical, educational and social supports.

But once someone is online, it can be life-changing. Here's how one physician described a patient from LaGrange:

She was financially strapped, didn't have any income. She was using this and actually for her, it brought her out of depression. Because she was very depressed, and she was able to make human contact with people all around the world. And she had friends she would correspond with in India and other countries.

Even when the digital divide is bridged for some have-nots, we still find inequality in the way people use the Internet. This difference in usage behaviors between the socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged is called digital inequality or the second-level digital divide.

In particular, my colleagues and I found that the advantaged are much more productive in using broadband to attain educational, economic, health, financial, social and political benefits.

In other words, access to high-speed Internet may wind up reproducing and enhancing existing advantages.

The process is ongoing

Municipal governments launch initiatives to offer public broadband service with an eye toward multiple benefits: developing a digital labor force, attracting new investment, bridging the digital divide, and harnessing opportunities for digital innovations.

But other stakeholders aren't as excited. For instance, incumbent service providers typically criticize these free initiatives as compromising their interests by offering competing service.

Some lawmakers (e.g., Cruz and Rubio) oppose such initiatives on the grounds government shouldn't intervene with market mechanisms.

Even if a Clinton or Sanders administration is able to structure a deal that potentially serves the interests of different stakeholders – government, incumbent service providers, the digitally advantaged and disadvantaged – these initiatives typically encounter financial constraints that endanger their continuation. Any future economic downturn could also challenge the economic sustainability of such deals.

Successfully bridging the digital divide is complicated. Besides providing the financial resources and technological means, an effective plan would need to motivate and encourage the have-nots, develop their digital competencies, and provide technical and social support.

After connecting the disadvantaged to HSI, policymakers should be aware of the second digital divide – rooted in ongoing socioeconomic inequalities – and provide continuous training and community support.

Finally, a successful plan would likely structure deals that serve different stakeholders' interests and are designed to sustain the initiatives.

Explore further: FCC head unveils proposal to narrow 'digital divide' (Update)

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