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The Digital Divide: Bandwidth, Skills, and Computers

Most middle- and high-income residents in urban and suburban areas have Internet access with adequate capacity. This is not always the case with residents in rural areas where, if broadband services are available, they are often costly and slow compared to service in more developed regions. The slow speeds discourage users from signing up for these services because services such as video depend on a higher capacity to work well.

For low-income groups, costs for computers and broadband can be prohibitive, given their limited resources. These circumstances contribute to what has been termed the digital divide, by which segments of populations do not have equal access to Internet and computer services. These populations are essentially locked out of online educational services, the ability to apply for and look for jobs online, and other services such as instructional materials and electronic training for their children.

While the digital divide between wealthy and poor residents is decreasing, as of January 2018, FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel stated that there are still over 24 million Americans and 12 million children with no broadband services. Government policies and allocation of resources have a major impact on bandwidth availability. Countries can provide free computer training for the unemployed to open up new opportunities for them. Training can enable the unemployed to apply online, which opens additional opportunities.

The digital divide is more than the simple measurement of whether or not Internet access is available. The digital divide is further measured by the following:

  • The amount of available bandwidth This is the network capacity in terms of bits per second and cost per kilobit or per megabit compared to urban sections of a country. In 2018, the FCC in defined broadband bandwidth as 25/3—25 megabits downstream to subscribers and 3 megabits upstream to the Internet.

  • The quality of computer equipment available to users Is it compatible with the latest browsers and is it capable of handling video?

  • The availability of training Do users know how to navigate the Internet to accomplish their goals?

The digital divide in the United States is decreasing in part because of the use of fixed wireless technologies in rural areas. AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, and Frontier all have stated their intention to increase broadband capacity in rural areas using new, higher capacity fixed wireless. See Chapter 7, “Mobile and Wi-Fi Networks,” for information on fixed wireless technologies. However, according to Pew Research Center’s 2016 surveys, the digital divide in the United States is most pronounced in:

  • Minority populations

  • Groups with lower incomes

  • Residents in rural areas

  • People with disabilities including those with low vision, hearing loss, and physical limitations

  • Seniors—particularly lower-income, less-educated seniors

Economic policies make a difference in the availability of broadband. Tax credits for new networks encourage carriers to upgrade equipment and infrastructure. Outright subsidies are a more direct option for improving networks. Countries such as Australia, China, and Japan have underwritten the cost of building fiber-optic or advanced mobile networks in rural areas. Improved broadband is one step in bringing remote areas into the online economy.

Community resources can bridge some of the gaps in the digital divide. In the United States, public libraries provide free Internet access, computers, and often training in how to use them. This is particularly critical in areas where residents do not have up-to-date computers or the expertise to access the Internet. In an effort dubbed “The Library of Things,” some libraries lend technology gear to families to promote computer literacy and Internet access. For example, they lend portable Wi-Fi hot spots so that people without Wi-Fi can access the Internet from a computer and Roku set-top boxes so people can try out streaming.

Internet Pricing and Competition

The cost of Internet access is a factor in increasing or lessening the digital divide. In 2017 the United States had the 12th highest average Internet speed worldwide according to speed monitoring company Ookla in the December 17, 2017, article at recode, “Global Internet Speeds Got 30% Faster in 2017,” by Rani Molla. In contrast, the average cost in the United States—$66.17—was 114th highest in the world out of a total of 196 countries surveyed. Iran and the Russian Federation were among the 113 countries with lower-cost Internet access. This statistic was published in the Forbes November 22, 2017, article, “The Most and Least Expensive Countries for Broadband,” by Niall McCarthy. The source for the statistic was consulting firm Statista.

Because people in many areas of the United States have few or no choices for an ISP, there is little incentive for carriers to lower their prices so that it is more affordable for lower-income people. Another factor on higher prices in rural areas is the higher cost to cable rural areas. These steep costs result from the fact that there are fewer customers per square mile in sparsely populated areas so ISPs don’t earn enough revenue from the few customers to make it worthwhile to lay fiber and charge lower prices in these areas.

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