Wireless or Wired: The New Digital Divide

Issues of access and power on the Web resurface.

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Are blacks becoming second-class citizens in the wired world? (Thinkstock)

In a New York Times op-ed, Susan P. Crawford discusses the growing digital divide as it relates to access to wireless and wired services. She argues that not all types of Internet access are equal. Crawford writes: 

Over the last decade, cheap Web access over phone lines brought millions to the Internet. But in recent years the emergence of services like video-on-demand, online medicine and Internet classrooms have redefined the state of the art: they require reliable, truly high-speed connections, the kind available almost exclusively from the nation’s small number of very powerful cable companies. Such access means expensive contracts, which many Americans simply cannot afford. While we still talk about “the” Internet, we increasingly have two separate access marketplaces: high-speed wired and second-class wireless. High-speed access is a superhighway for those who can afford it, while racial minorities and poorer and rural Americans must make do with a bike path ...

Crawford adds:

The problem is that smartphone access is not a substitute for wired. The vast majority of jobs require online applications, but it is hard to type up a résumé on a hand-held device; it is hard to get a college degree from a remote location using wireless. Few people would start a business using only a wireless connection.

Crawford raises some important issues. While many have been celebrating blacks as early adopters of technology and the use of PDAs to participate in the "digital democracy," few outside of academia have been discussing this very real issue of access.

What happens if you cannot afford the cost of any level of wired service? How can we help ensure everyone's participation in the Web? Net neutrality has been covered extensively, but the fact that many cannot afford any type of wired access to the Web is a problem.

Net neutrality and this issue are interconnected. Even for the middle class, the cost of cellphones and wired service at home is extremely high -- even cost-prohibitive for some. If you or those around you cannot afford both types of services, then the completion of online courses, job applications or even traditional college applications is pretty difficult.

Crawford is correct in raising a red flag about the emerging class divide in the new media space. She highlights that "Americans of all stripes are adopting smartphones at breakneck speeds; in just over four years the number has jumped from about 10 percent to about 35 percent; among Hispanics and African-Americans, it's roughly 44 percent." However, she adds, "Only slightly more than half of all African-American and Hispanic households (55 percent and 57 percent, respectively) have wired Internet access at home, compared with 72 percent of whites."

These statistics clearly demonstrate the challenges that people of color have in paying such high rates for any level of wired Internet access. Internet regulations are still evolving, and we have to be vigilant in protecting the rights of African Americans, Latinos and poor whites to have the same level of access. Before critics start pointing to the public library system as a resource, keep in mind that many have been closed over the past few years because of major cuts, particularly in communities of color. Further, depending on the number and quality of computers available to the public, while this is an option, it does not ensure equal access.

Crawford has raised the flag. The question is, how will we respond?

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