Shunning the Web


Fewer than half of African Americans and Hispanics use the Internet regularly, although they believe that Internet access can provide critical information about jobs, health and families. A survey of 900 black and Hispanic adults shows that while the digital divide of the 1990s may have receded, significant differences in usage remain.


The survey results by pollster Cornell Belcher were disclosed Thursday at the Broadband Symposium of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) in Washington. Belcher, who won national attention for his work on behalf of then-candidate Barack Obama, questioned minority adults nationwide about their views of the Internet. One in five respondents rated Internet speed as more important than free access in expanding access to the Web, a finding that’s good news for David Sutphen, co-chairman of the IIA, which supports universal broadband access to the Web for underserved communities.

The Root: Are there significant gaps in access to broadband in the United States?

David Sutphen: The vast majority of Americans live in a place where they have some form of access, whether it’s wireless or wire line. Cornell Belcher’s research says only 42 percent of Africans and Hispanics are regularly connected. To me that’s a serious issue, and we need to delve a little bit deeper. Is that concern, a lack of understanding about the technology, is it a price-point issue or some combination thereof?

But finding a way to solve that problem and to make sure that we’re addressing it from a policy and an education perspective is important.

TR: How do you see creating wider access to broadband? Do you do it through legislation or the private effort?

DS: I think it’s a kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach at this point. For the first time, you have an administration committed to a national broadband plan. The goal is to come up with policy that will facilitate universal broadband. You have a broad cross-section of industries that make up Broadband for America, the goal being to reach 100 percent access and adoption.


It’s a perfect illustration of an issue which there really is mutual benefit to both government and private industry to work collaboratively in areas where businesses can’t get any type of return. Maybe that’s where the government, with the $7 billion of stimulus money [allocated to technology] can make some of the initial investments that allows private industry to come in, after the fact, and make sure that if you’re in a rural community or a Native American reservation that you still have an opportunity to get connected.

TR: People in European countries like France often pay far less for Internet access than we do in the United States. What’s causing such a huge difference in pricing?


DS: One, if you look at the size of France compared to the U.S., there’s a huge issue. By way of analogy, look at our energy grid in the U.S. and look at where Europe, the European Union, is on clean energy. You see they’re leaps and bounds ahead of us. Part of that is scope and scale, but part of that we have not necessarily had the policy prescriptions and a macro approach to solving these issues.

The administration recently came out with statistics; it would take an estimated $350 billion to build out that kind of [national] broadband network; there’s $7 billion in the stimulus build. That’s a pretty big gap; that’s where private industry needs to step in.


TR: Is there a role for mobile technology?

DS: The encouraging thing is to look at technologies like wireless. You have communities in the past that had huge adoption gaps. You now have a situation where African-American and Hispanic consumers actually over-consume wireless connectivity.


In a lot of developing countries, they’ve completely skipped wire-line phones and gone straight to wireless. We’re going to see that happening in the U.S. because it’s cheaper to get a 3G- or 4G-enabled device. Once you get connected, everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnic background or race, appreciates the value of being connected. If it’s your cell phone that gets you connected first, you can check your Facebook page and that leads you to get a Netbook and sign up for broadband at home and take better or fuller advantage in your office, and take care of your traffic ticket. There are so many efficiencies that come with it.

We need to make sure that we don’t create a system where the haves are benefitting in multi-dimensional dynamic ways and making their lives more efficient and those that need it the most are not left waiting on line.


Other results from the survey:

More than 60 percent (64 percent) of those polled strongly believe the Internet is important because students with access can receive tutoring and help with their homework.


More than 3 in 5 (61 percent) strongly feel households with Internet access have greater access to commerce, education, health care, entertainment and communication.

Approximately half (48 percent) strongly agree that Internet is valuable because tech-connected families receive more health information.