The “digital divide” is the inequality between those who can reliably connect to the Internet and computers and those who cannot. At one Newark public high school, accessible Wi-Fi can be more valuable than a bus ride home.
In Newark, a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S., many Newark Leadership Academy students can’t afford home Internet access. At the school, like all public schools in the city, Wi-Fi isn’t available to teachers or students. In fact, only 39 percent of public schools have wireless network access for the whole school. Instead, teens hungry for an online connection seek alternatives in order to fill out job and college applications, complete homework assignments and stay connected to the outside world.
Many of students would prefer a two-mile walk home over a missed Wi-Fi opportunity.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, only 54 percent of households with incomes of less than $30,000 have a high-speed broadband connection at home. As a result, in order to complete digital assignments, many students are forced to find sources of free Internet access outside of school. While the library is often an option, hours can be limited, particularly in the evening. Many of these students are increasingly turning to free WiFi at places like McDonald’s to complete their homework.
One organization making a difference is the Red Hook Initiative with Red Hook WiFi and the Digital Stewards program. Red Hook WiFi is a community-led effort to close the digital divide, generate economic opportunity, facilitate access to essential services and improve quality of life in Red Hook, Brooklyn via the deployment of a wireless Internet network. The Digital Stewards are young adults from Red Hook ages 19-24, employed by the Red Hook Initiative to install, maintain and promote the WiFi network and use technology to bring about community development. The Stewards are trained in wireless network installation, software and hardware troubleshooting, and community organizing using a curriculum created by the Open Technology Institute and Allied Media Projects.
One important reason for the problem of broadband access is the cost of high-speed Internet service is simply too high. In American cities like New York, you can buy a 500 Mbps connection that’s 58 times faster than the U.S. average. Here’s the catch: It’ll cost you $300 a month, according to the New America Foundation’s Cost of Connectivity report. In Amsterdam, however, the same connection can be had for around $86.
In Seoul, a triple-play package for phone, TV and Internet at speeds of 100 Mbps for both uploads and downloads will run you $35 a month. By contrast, Verizon will charge New Yorkers $70 a month for a triple-play package with Internet at 15 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up on its FiOS service. Verizon’s Internet is both more expensive and slower at the same time. And this is mostly due to government policy as Susan Crawford writes in Captive Audience:
Instead of ensuring that everyone in America can compete in a global economy, instead of narrowing the divide between rich and poor, instead of supporting competitive free markets for American inventions that use information—instead, that is, of ensuring that America will lead the world in the information age—U.S. politicians have chosen to keep Comcast and its fellow giants happy.
It is worth mentioning that all of the top-performing American cities in the study are those that are disrupting the business for incumbent ISPs, such as Verizon, Time Warner Cable and AT&T. Remember Verizon’s $300 for 500 Mbps plan? In Bristol, Va., the city’s publicly operated fiber optic network gives you twice as much speed for just $19 more. Chattanooga, Tenn. offers an even more attractive deal: the same speeds as Bristol (1 Gbps, or 1000 Mbps), but for $70 a month.
Instead of being extremely expensive, the Internet could eventually be as ubiquitous as the air we breathe if the Federal Communications Commission moves forward with a plan to allow free access to an unused part of the broadcast spectrum. The WiFi networks that would flourish on that bandwidth could powerfully transform our lives and spur massive innovation in the economy – if the idea can get past the multi-billion dollar interests standing in its way.
According to a report released by Raul Katz, Ph.D., who is Director of Strategy Research at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, the economic value of unlicensed wireless spectrum in the U.S. could exceed $140 billion. Also WifiForward, a coalition that includes Google and Microsoft and that is calling for policymakers to open up more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi and other, released an economic study showing unlicensed spectrum generated $222 billion in value to the U.S. economy in 2013 and contributed $6.7 billion to U.S. gross domestic product.
Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spearheaded the public WiFi effort on the grounds that it could lead to whole new industries of products and services, but the idea would also serve the agency’s mission to reduce the digital divide by expanding the availability of high-speed Internet access and reducing its cost. As Lawrence Lessig of Rootstrikers puts it:
There is an important battle being raged in Washington right now over something called quote spectrum. A battle that is extraordinary important to the future of the Internet and one in which the extremists are now prevailing. This is a battle of whether we will sell all spectrum such that access to spectrum is controlled by those who own the property right. If the extremist win then this will destroy the potential for cheap ubiquitous uncontrolled access to the Internet that is increasing spreading throughout the country right now. We need to do something to stop this shift before the shift becomes permanent.
In an email to the New York Amsterdam News, Clayton Banks, co-founder of Silicon Harlem spelled out some of the problems troubling him and his organization. “Millions of American households still lack access to any broadband provider,” he wrote, “and compared to some of the world’s leading broadband nations such as Sweden, Korea and Japan, America lags behind on price for high-speed plans. Free and affordable Wi-Fi can change lives, and the Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, has made this a part of her economic platform. That’s why she included a commitment that 100 percent of households in America will have access to high-speed, affordable broadband by 2020 as one of her top policies for technology and innovation.”
If this promise is kept—and if Clinton is elected—Banks believes the developments will go far in expanding the availability of online options and Wi-Fi, especially in the communities of color where the school children are among the most deprived. “Eighty percent of homework in local schools is now assigned and must be completed online,” Banks said. Consequently, one in four households with school age children cannot complete their homework.
Universal broadband for all our citizens is the demand Banks is making, and the quest is at the core of Silicon Harlem, which is a social venture, an ecosystem, a veritable hub created to provide the information and tools needed to prepare for the 21st century opportunities.
If you would like to help close the digital divide, tired of paying outrageous Internet bills, and want more companies to offer innovative serious using unlicensed spectrum then sign the online petition to President Obama, Congress, and the FCC Commissioners which says:
“FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said that having sufficient unlicensed spectrum (e.g. Wifi) will be key to American innovation and global competitiveness. President Obama, Congress, and the FCC please free up the unlicensed spectrum and get Americans working again.”
To sign this petition click here: