The Hole in the Digital Economy


If the next president intends to improve American infrastructure and expand economic opportunities, there’s no better place to start than with the millions of people who still lack broadband access and computer skills.


Most homes in the United States have Internet service, but they don’t in the poor parts of Cleveland and nearby suburbs. A survey in 2012 showed that 58 percent of the area’s households with incomes under $20,000 had neither home broadband nor mobile Internet access, often because of the cost. Another 10 percent had a mobile phone but no home broadband. Until recently, one such household was a ground-floor two-­bedroom apartment in a public housing project called Outhwaite Homes, where a circumspect 13-year-old girl named Ma’Niyah Larry lives with her mother, Marcella.

Ma’Niyah has a special-education plan for math; to help her, she’s been assigned problems to do online through Khan Academy. But her mother says she cannot afford broadband from Time Warner Cable, which would begin at around $50 a month, even for an entry-level offering, plus modem and taxes (and the price would rise significantly after the 12-month teaser rate expired). The family has a smartphone, but it’s harder for Ma’Niyah to use the small screen, and Marcella watches her data caps closely; just a few hours of Khan Academy videos would blow past monthly limits. Fast Internet access is available in a library a few blocks away, but “it’s so bad down here that it’s not really safe to walk outside,” Marcella Larry says. Ma’Niyah’s bedroom, its wall decorated with a feathery dream-catcher, faces a grassy courtyard where gang-related gunfire rang out on two nights last summer, causing Ma’Niyah to flee to the relative safety of the living room.

There is a patchwork of attempts to deal with this problem. The region’s public housing agency, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, recently gave Ma’Niyah a tablet and a wireless hotspot in a trial program to help close the “homework gap” that’s opened up between kids who have Internet-­connected computers at home and those who don’t. And Marcella Larry qualifies for a discount program AT&T offers to families that receive food subsidies: DSL service—far slower than what the government defines as broadband—over phone lines for $5 to $10 a month. But it’s hardly a long-term solution. AT&T agreed to offer the package for four years as part of its effort to win regulatory approval for its acquisition of DirectTV.

Marcella and Ma’Niyah are among the millions of people on the wrong side of America’s persistent digital divide. A survey by Pew Research shows that fully one-third of American adults do not subscribe to any Internet access faster than dial-up at their home at a time when many basic tasks—finding job listings, doing homework, obtaining social services, and even performing many jobs—require being online. Even many people who are willing to pay for service can’t get it. Thirty-four million Americans have no access at all to broadband as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission defines it: a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of three megabits per second. These speeds are what FCC chairman Tom Wheeler calls “table stakes for 21st-century communications.”

Read more on MIT Technology Review.

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