The digital divide – wait, there are people who don’t have broadband?

By on March 29th, 2013 in Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

I saw this on PBS and was reminded with a shock that there are still Americans (and lots of people in other first world countries) that still don’t have broadband access. For those of us who live in the tech bubble, this is easier and easier to forget – especially since these days basically everywhere I go that’s indoors has free wi-fi. (Seriously. Including the gym I go to.)
Of course, as the interview says, one big group that’s less likely to have broadband access is the elderly. For this group, my guess is that a good portion of that lack of access is by choice. For this group as well, it’s a problem that will fix itself with time – by the time my generation is retired, there probably won’t be a huge gap in these numbers.
What’s more concerning to me is the group of people who don’t have broadband access because they either live in an area where non-satellite based broadband isn’t available or because they simply can’t afford the cost. Broadband internet is quickly becoming something that is pretty vital to being part of society – it isn’t a luxury any more when most jobs expect you to apply online and the fastest way to interact with most government agencies is via their website.
I was pretty happy to read about the FCC’s Low Income Broadband Pilot Program. I’m sure it will wind up being controversial, but it’s seems to me like a sensible recognition of the fact that broadband internet is quickly becoming a crucial part of our daily life. Regarding what can be done about getting broadband to the very remote places that are still not connected, that is a tougher problem. There have been government programs for decades working to get phone lines installed on Native American reservations. While these programs could be a model for similar efforts to get broadband lines installed, the fact that telephone access is still an issue demonstrates the how tough the problem is. There are areas where satellite access is probably the most cost effective form of broadband internet – and that’s probably not something that will be fixed with time.