Return of the digital divide

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”  A new report is out about the Internet which raises the concern over a digital divide.  As the Washington Post story (“Survey of online access finds digital divide”) sums it up: “A first-of-its-kind federal survey of online access found that Americans in lower-income and rural areas often have slower Internet connections than users in wealthier communities.”

This new survey of internet usage, Digital Nation: Expanding Internet Usage, was released yesterday by the Commerce Department’s National Telecomminications and information Administration.  The press release highlights the following points:

  • Broadband Internet access at home continues to grow: 68 percent of households have broadband access, as compared to 63.5 percent last year. (In the survey, broadband was defined as Internet access service that uses DSL, cable modem, fiber optics, mobile broadband, and other high-speed Internet access services.)
  • Notable disparities between demographic groups continue: people with low incomes, disabilities, seniors, minorities, the less-educated, non-family households, and the non-employed tend to lag behind other groups in home broadband use.
  • While the digital divide between urban and rural areas has lessened since 2007, it remains significant. In 2010, 70 percent of urban households and only 60 percent of rural households accessed broadband Internet service. (Last year, those figures were 66 percent and 54 percent, respectively.)
  • Overall, the two most commonly cited main reasons for not having broadband Internet access at home are that it is perceived as not needed (46 percent) or too expensive (25  percent). In rural America, however, lack of broadband availability is a larger reason for non-adoption than in urban areas (9.4 percent vs. 1 percent). Americans also cite the lack of a computer as a factor.
  • Despite the growing importance of the Internet in American life, 28.3 percent of all persons do not use the Internet in any location, down from 31.6 percent last year.</blockquote>

Unfortunately, this digital divide is nothing new.  It’s just that we haven’t heard much about it over the past decade.

Also unfortunately, we seem to be approaching it in the same way we did a decade ago — as a consumer-oriented technology deployment issue.  As the New York Times story (Digital Age Is Slow to Arrive in Rural America) notes, the issue is important for economic development.  But then goes on to say: “All of that is important, certainly. But here in Clarke County, where churches and taxidermy shops line the main roads and drivers learn early to dodge logging trucks hauling pine trees, most people would simply like to upload photos of their children to Facebook.”

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We need to recognize that this is an issue of inclusion in the broad information age — not just access to Facebook.  Over a decade ago, Athena Alliance held a conference on on this topic.  The report, Information Age: Reframing the Debate made the following points:

Point one: Focus on the transformation, not the technology.

 

The issue of concern is the transformation to the Information Age. It is not simply a question of technological deployment. The end purpose is not to narrow some gap, but to ensure that everyone has access to the expanded opportunities. Our framework should be one of inclusion for all in the broader activities that make up society and the economy.

 

Point two: Review and coordinate efforts.

 

The problem has aspects of telecommunications policy, such as infrastructure and standards and elements of technology policy, such as research and development and technology deployment. But it also has aspects of policies on training and workforce development, education, economic development, housing and community development, human services and trade. Reaching our goal requires a coordinated approach — in the private, public and non-governmental sectors – that combines the various elements of providing opportunity and inclusion in the information age. To coordinate policy, the focus of governmental digital opportunity efforts should be the White House, not in any one department or agency.

 

It is also time to take a new look at some policy areas. For example, a comprehensive approach is needed toward all parts of managing the information commons: privacy, intellectual property rights, “right-to-know” policies and other related areas.

 

Point three: Work to ensure that everyone has access to the technological infrastructure.

 

Barriers to access to the infrastructure are many. Ways of overcoming those barriers are also varied, including public access facilities that can combine access with training and other activities, as well as home access. With respect to access in the home, we must return to the question of universal access. We also need to address the development of broadband capabilities – both at home and at work. Both home use and public access points are important. Multiple access public points are needed, such as existing public facilities, training centers, libraries, and after-school centers. For these facilities, sustainability is the key. But, it is not enough to simply provide access. We must work to weave information technology into the operations of community groups in a way that will both help individuals use the technology and will make those groups more efficient and effective in their core mission.

 

Some of the barriers to digital inclusion are physical: the usability of the technology. This is not, as commonly thought of, an issue only for those with disabilities. The problems of usability and human-machine interfaces affect all of us and research on ways to increase access for those with disabilities will pay off in increased usability for all.

Point four: Encourage and facilitate participation and involvement by all in the digital economy and information society.

To foster participation and involvement, the technology must meet people’s needs – not define those needs. Information technology can help people in their day-to-day lives if it is designed and structured in such a way that it helps answer their questions and solve their problems. Otherwise it becomes a barrier and a source of frustration. This is the danger of what some refer to as the “over-wired” world.
It is important to understand that individuals have different needs. A one-size-fits-all may help some – and increase their participation and involvement – but will block others. By focusing on “demand-pull,” rather than “technology-push,” we can better tailor the technology to meet individual needs.

 

Development of meaningful content, including more locally-based content, is one of the ways to increase the level of participation. E-government is one important form of meaningful content. But, we must also insure that those who are not on-line are not left behind. No services or information should be removed or dramatically cut back from traditional means of dissemination in favor of electronic dissemination until and unless all members of the community have access to that electronic means as easily as they have to the traditional means.

 

Point five: Focus economic development on the Information Economy, not the Internet Economy.

 

The information age will require a new approach to economic development. Key to the process is using and developing assets: financial, social, skill-based, and information assets. We must focus on building the local economy’s vitality and ability to compete in the age of globalization and help people make the switch to the new economy.

 

Our priorities should include:
- development of processes for identifying and assessing local assets,
- revitalizing programs for training the existing workforce,
- helping small and medium size enterprises make use of IT, and
- fostering entrepreneurship at all levels and in all sectors.

 

We must also develop and utilize new mechanisms for financing the transformation, including Individual Development Accounts and new ways of financing intangible assets.
The New Markets Initiative is another example of a way to reach out to communities left behind.

 

Collaborative learning and sharing of information is also important in the larger process of economic development. There are a number of examples of information assets being applied within businesses and with local economies. We need to utilize new knowledge management techniques and old-fashioned communications techniques to collect, disseminate and better utilize that information.

 

Point six: We need a better understanding of what is going on.

 

We need to re-look at the data needed for economic development in the information economy. The problem of data extends beyond the scope of local economic data. We need both better data and expanded analysis of the socioeconomic aspects of the information technology. That research must be translated into policy relevant terms. For this reason, Congress should seriously consider re-establishing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

 

Point seven: The decision making process must be open.

 

True inclusion and opportunity can only occur if the process of decision making is open and transparent. Information technology has a tremendous potential for opening and maintaining channels for general input and advocacy. However, decisions made about the technology can have the effect of closing off the process rather than opening it up. We must insure that all parties are at the table when decisions, including issues such as standard setting, are made.

 

Point eight: Innovate and experiment.

 

We are in a time of transformation and change. The speed of that change and the pace of economic activity will vary. Yet the change is real and will continue. In such a time, we must often invent new ways of coping with our problems and new policies for guiding our economy and society. Such experimentation will require great policy discipline, however. It requires a strong, unbiased means of evaluating programs and policies – and the political discipline to follow the guidance of that evaluation. We must also find means to ensure that the evaluations are timely for the fast moving policy arena. The goal in evaluation is not simply proving the effectiveness of an action – it is to facilitate learning. Learning is the hallmark of the Information Age. Our public policy process must embrace that concept as tightly as the rest of our economy and society already have.

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While a little dated, these points are basically as relevant today as they were a decade ago.  As we move forward with this need discussion of the digital divide, I hope we can focus on these broader issues.

Cross posted from The Intangible Economy

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