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High Speed Internet Access Opens Another Digital Divide

Photo by KOMUNews
High-speed modems, such as these allow speedy access to the Internet, something many New York households lack.

In New York City, a whopping 98 percent of residents have cable service available to them. Yet only about 46 percent of the city's households subscribe to the broadband Internet that cable can provide.

The cost of being hooked up to broadband simply is too high for many low-income New York residents. A 2006 American Community Survey indicated that in New York City, a mere 26 percent of low-income households had the high speed service at home, compared to the 54 percent of moderate-to-high income households -- indication of a very clear "digital divide."

Advocates in New York City believe that the below average rate of wired and wireless broadband Internet deprives people in low-income communities of educational and work opportunities, since such access quickly is becoming one of the greatest economic equalizers.

The high-speed Internet provided by the increased bandwidth allows customers to upload and download data more than 10 times faster than they can on dial-up service. A small business that operates a website for its customers would therefore be much more productive and more competitive if it had access to broadband.

Civil rights groups, such as Journalists of Color and National Hispanic Media Coalition, as well as academics, have urged the government to launch efforts to promote the use of broadband, in immigrant, minority and other low-income communities. In response, New York City, with help from federal money and nonprofit organizations, has begun to implement policies in the hopes of creating equal opportunity to access the Internet.

Beyond Reach

In an early 2010 study done for the Federal Communications Commission, the Social Science Research Council found, "Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it."

High speed internet access has rapidly become almost a necessity as people use it to run small businesses, interact with government agencies and do school work at all levels. Certain job applications, including those for entry-level positions at Target and Home Depot, are available exclusively online. While low-speed access is available, experts say it is so slow that it is practically worthless.

But the costs of high speed make it prohibitive for many New Yorkers. Dharma Dailey, a researcher who helped conduct the Social Science Research Council study, said the overall cost of having a broadband connection includes much more than just the monthly fees, which range from $20 introductory rates to over $70. People also must purchase a computer and modem, and pay fees for installation, repairs and virus protection, Providers often charge low-income consumers extra deposits and other fees.

Researchers made site visits to four states considered in the council study, including New York. They found disproportionately low broadband adoption rates among African Americans and Latinos, who make up a large portion of the city's population.

This has prompted many groups to call on governmental agencies to help promote access to broadband services among those with low incomes.

The Government Response

The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 resulted in the appropriation of $7.2 billion in federal money to tackle the problem of getting broadband in underserved communities throughout the nation.

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program was initiated to disburse funds to different states. As a result, Gov. David Paterson issued Executive Order 22 creating the New York Broadband Development and Deployment Council to devise a plan to spend its slice of the federal funds and work toward universal broadband adoption. A few months later, three New York City advocacy group leaders and others across the country wrote a letter to Federal Communication Commission chairman Julian Genachowski outlining the need for government programs to increase broadband adoption in underserved communities.

In the first round of federal funding, New York state benefited from five different telecommunications grants, some of which were targeted to rural upstate communities. The city's Department of Information and Telecommunications Technology, though, received $22.1 million, the largest grant awarded in the nation, for the NYC Connected Learning Program to focus on "sustainable broadband adoption" in New York City.

The project, which will aim to reach almost 20,000 low-income sixth graders attending 100 schools across the city, will provide broadband to the students but also will take a holistic approach to increase the broadband adoption rate. The program will provide the students with personal computers and discounted broadband Internet access. In addition, the program, according to Department of Information technology project manager Kate Hohman, will emphasize education to "build an appreciation of the value of broadband." To supplement the technology, the Connected Learning Program will offer basic technical training and online learning opportunities, along with bilingual assistance to avoid language barriers.

The program intends to benefit the students’ families as well. It is projected that over 14,000 households will subscribe to broadband as a result of NYC Connected Learning. City officials expect the program to be implemented in the fall.

For the second and final round of federal stimulus funding, the city has applied for two additional grants. Connected Communities would seek to enhance community computer centers in the most impoverished neighborhoods by alerting residents of their whereabouts, providing broadband access, and offering technical assistance and training. The city would create partnerships with community and senior centers, and set aside funds to increase computer access and digital literacy programs in public libraries. The city has asked for $15 million in stimulus money to pay for the program and will put up $9.7 million of its own funds.

The other initiative, NYC Connected Foundations, would allow high school students at 43 public high schools who are dropout risks to participate in a "Connected Foundations" that would emphasize digital literacy with the overarching goal of increasing broadband adoption in their communities. Students would also received computers and subsidized broadband access. The city has applied for almost $6 million from the federal government to supplement the $2.6 million that the city will provide.

Neither program has yet received approval from the federal government.

A Broadband 'Lifeline'

Another possible solution to low broadband adoption is currently being pursued as part of the National Broadband Plan, an effort to connect all Americans to high speed internet. As part of that, today from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the Federal Communications Commission will hold a roundtable discussion to explore broadband pilot programs for low-income consumers. (To view the discussion as it takes place or after the fact, go here.

The planned discussion is a result of the National Broadband Plan's recommendation to set up a broadband program similar to the current Lifeline/Link-Up programs that allow low-income customers to pay lower rates for setting up and maintaining secure telephone service. Under the program, all customers pay a small amount into the universal fund, which is used to bring fees down for those who either live in rural areas or who cannot otherwise afford to have service. Making Lifeline/Link-Up funds are available for broadband services as well, proponents say, could dramatically increase broadband usage for underserved parts of the population..

Depending on the results of today's discussion, the communications commission could launch pilot programs to see how best to operate the newly expanded Lifeline/Link-Up programs.

Beyond the Government

Not-for-profit groups in New York have also launched efforts to try to ensure digital equality for all city residents. In particular, People's Production House, a New York-based organization dedicated to bringing media democracy to underserved communities, has various programs to try to close the digital divide.

Its Digital Expansion Initiative focuses on educating youths, immigrants and low-income residents on matters related to technology. In addition to in-depth digital literacy and media studies training, the project seeks to inform individuals about government policies that affect online journalism and Internet access.

The group currently is seeking a grant of about $3 million from the second round of federal stimulus funding, in conjunction with the North Star Fund and 21 other organizations. The grant money, which would be more than matched by the North Star Fund, would pay for the New York Constellation of Community Computer Centers project. The money would allow the initiative, which already creates public computer centers, to expand and upgrade.

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