Computing Profession

The Digital Divide Continues

A representation of Internet connectivity.
About 50 million U.S. residents do not own home computers, and nearly 40% of them do not have Internet access at home.

Do you think everyone owns a computer and is on the Internet? It’s just not so; 6% of the population of the United States, 19 million Americans, lack Internet access at home, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report. Nationally, the latest 2011 U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate that 50 million people — about 16% of the population — have no home computer.

"The Digital Divide still exists, but it is shrinking," observes Kathryn Zickuhr, an analyst at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit’s most recent survey polled 2,252 individuals in May 2013 and found the percentage of Americans who can’t access the Internet from home had declined from 21% in 2011 to 15% this year. That still leaves roughly 47 million Americans disconnected by circumstance or choice.

There are myriad reasons for this lack of Internet access. They include economics: not everyone can afford to own a home computer, or to pay monthly broadband connectivity fees. Location is another obstacle: many rural and geographically remote areas in the U.S. have no connectivity.

Age is also a factor. Seniors are less likely than younger adults to go online, according to a Pew Research Center’s Internet Usage Statistics Report which found that 44% of adults ages 65 and older are offline. The 2011 U.S. Census Bureau Report "Computer and Internet Use in the United States," based on a poll of 100,000 U.S. households, found nearly 16% of Americans don’t use the Internet and have no home computer.

Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), technology vendors like Google and Facebook, as well as local organizations such as libraries, community and senior citizens centers, all have strategies to close the Digital Divide.

In mid-August, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched, a global partnership with Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung. The industry coalition plans to provide Internet access to the 4.5 billion people worldwide that the World Bank estimates have no online access. The Facebook-led initiative’s immediate goal is reduce the cost of providing mobile Internet services. Google also aims to conquer the Digital Divide in remote areas where Internet connectivity currently is not available via its Project Loon, which will float balloons equipped with radio antennas into the stratosphere; people will be able to connect to the balloon network via an Internet antenna on top of buildings.

Meanwhile here on Earth, the FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report released in August 2012 found that 75% (14.5 million) of the 19 million Americans that currently lack Internet access at home live in rural or remote areas where connectivity is unavailable.

Looking at this population by ethnicity, none are more disenfranchised than the nation’s 5.1 million Native American Indians and Alaska Natives, the majority of whom live on 324 tribal reservation lands in the lower 48 states and Alaska, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Many Native Americans live miles from any town or power grid, and without electricity, they can’t get Internet access.

The organizations that are most tangibly narrowing the Digital Divide are local: libraries, senior centers and community centers. They are often the first and only avenue of Internet access for the poor, unemployed job seekers, the elderly, former prison inmates, and homeless people. They also provide computer and Internet training classes free (or for a nominal fee of $10-20).

These services are invaluable, especially in cities like bankrupt Detroit, whose current unemployment rate is 16%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ April 2013 report.

The Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch has 200 computers for public use, including 40 in its Technology Literacy and Career Center (TLC) that offer untimed usage for anyone doing work-related searches; completing tests, employment applications, or school-related applications; writing legally required letters, or accessing documents related to military service. The other 160 computers may be used by individuals to access the Internet for 60- or 90-minute intervals.

"The TLC Center is a lifeline to non-Internet users. Every day, people come in who have no computer experience and who have never been on the Internet," says Dorothy Manty, manager of the TLC for the last 22 years. She says the TLC averages about 1,275 users monthly. "The people that use our computers and Internet services face tremendous challenges. Many are not computer literate, have family issues, no job, and some are newly free after years of incarceration," Manty says.

Mario Ramos, who manages the Public Computing Center (PCC) at the High Point Public Library in High Point, N.C., recounts similar experiences. High Point, with a population of 105,000, also struggles with high unemployment; many of the area’s furniture manufacturers, who provided the economic base for the community, have moved their operations to the Far East.

"People would struggle if High Point Public Library’s PCC didn’t exist," Ramos says. The city’s community centers have a combined total of 15 computers among them for public use, while the PCC has 48 computers for public use and consistently runs at "75% capacity or about 200 people daily and logs up to 6,500 usage hours monthly," Ramos says.

"The PCC’s services are indispensible. More and more employers like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Dollar General Stores now only accept job applications online," he adds.

Some people, like Internet pioneer Clifford Stoll, simply opt to limit their Internet access. Stoll gained fame in 1986 while working as a systems administrator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA when, in one of the first examples of computer forensics, he tracked down a German hacker who had been breaking into U.S. military computer networks.

Today, while he is connected to the Internet, "I have a lightweight Internet presence," Stoll says. "There’s not enough time to spend it online," Stoll says, adding, "the Internet is alluring. But as with many attractive things like chocolate and alcohol, it’s useful to set limits."

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, a Boston-area IT consultancy.

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