The Digital Divide’s Jagged Edges

In reading Susan Crawford’s “The New Digital Divide,” I saw how predictive some parts were, especially about high bills because of “the lack of competition in cable markets.”

And, of course, with the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, things aren’t looking too laissez-faire for the average cable customer either. Well, until one takes a deeper look into Crawford is writing circa December 2011, and what is happening in the digital realms in February 2014.

Crawford seems to take the position that home-based high-speed Internet access is like segregated public schools: separate and unequal, making it a digital-technology cause worthy of a movement. I say wait a minute and let’s consider a few things.

First, analog television: The last of the analog-holdouts howled something fierce when full-power TV stations switched to all-digital broadcasts. What year was that? June 2009. But guess what? Most people, which include a great number of African-American and Hispanic households, already had either a digital TV or…wait for it: cable, which provided access to the digital signals.

I don’t think the economic realities for ethnic minority households changed all that significantly between June 2009 and Crawford publication date in December 2011. What does this mean for the segregated-schools comparison? It means that high-speed Internet access is more like expensive designer sneakers. Several people, regardless of income, will spend their money on things that they want, whether or not it makes any economic sense.

Sure, there are some American households without Internet service, mainly because of economics, but lest we forget that nowadays the majority has access to the digital arena? Sure it would be great if there were a computer with a reliable high-speed Internet connection in every home, but that’s probably not happening anytime soon. Remember analog televisions had been around for more than five decades before the FCC pulled the plug, so to speak, just five years ago.

Second, Google and Netflix: On the road to a federal hearing on the gigantic cable merger, Comcast brokered a deal with Netflix to make the video streaming more seamless. This move has colors to quiet net neutrality questions and antitrust sidesteps. And, now there is an emerging player in the digital-divide wars: Google Fiber.

While the Google service is cheaper than what powerhouse cable operators provide, the registration service isn’t free. Yet, Google Fiber is an alternative to no access at all, but Crawford doesn’t mention it, even though the registration service had arrived in Kansas City by the time she published.

Third, the rise of the app: Crawford spends considerable time explaining why smartphones are not the answer to the digital-divide problem, but I think she’s outdated on this point. Today’s high-tech, new media world is all about the app wizard (think Instagram), compared to the dot.com millionaire circa turn of the 21st century. For many home users, mobile devices are replacing desktop, and increasingly laptop, computers.

Using Crawford’s example to expand my point, if there isn’t an app for online for job applications, there will be one soon because there seems to be an app for just about everything. And, lest not forget Wi-Fi. With a decent firewall, public wireless is a viable option for many folks. In other words, if ethnic minorities in the U.S. have smartphones, and according to Crawford they do in considerable numbers, and/or some other mobile device, they are active participants in today’s digital world, and they do not need, necessarily, home-based high-speed access to make Internet connections. The digital divide exists make no mistake, but apps and mobile devices have made the edges of it jagged.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Digital Divide’s Jagged Edges

  1. impressonion

    I think you have several good points, Norma. Some of Crawford’s concerns are outdated, and technology is bridging the gap on a daily basis. New apps and new options are being created all the time.

    I admit I was a little perplexed when I read this article and it seemed to me that Crawford’s concern over “truly high-speed Internet access” seemed a little unwarranted. According to her definition of high-speed, I have been using inferior internet access pretty much my entire online life. And yet it serves all the purposes I would use it for, except perhaps, intense gaming that I don’t really have time for anyway! The thing is, she classifies only two markets, “high-speed wired and second-class wireless,” but I think there is a third which I and most people I know fall into—second-class wired. It’s certainly not as high-speed as what she describes, but it’s not quite as bad as straight wireless either. And it’s probably a better goal for bridging the digital divide—maybe not everyone needs super high-speed wired connections, but everyone should have access to several options for medium-speed internet access at decent, competitive prices.

    Nevertheless, the state of the U.S. internet access market still bothers me quite regularly. And this is what Crawford says is the bigger problem, “the lack of competition in cable markets.” I am constantly frustrated by the monthly reminder of how much I am paying for such low speeds. Where I live, there are only two options: AT&T U-verse or Time Warner Cable. I find both options appalling, but I believe I choose the lesser of two evils by selecting AT&T. Although sometimes AT&T does its absolute worst to convince me I am making a huge mistake. I constantly lament the lack of access to Verizon FIOS or Google Fiber in my neighborhood(s) …(each of the four places I have lived and paid for Internet since I moved to Dallas). Considering how big a city we live in, you’d think the better options would be more widespread, and that the main competitors would have a bit more “competing” to do. But they don’t.

    That’s why potential mergers like Time Warner and Comcast are so horrifying, or the one from another article I read (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/27/technology/personaltech/t-mobile-turns-an-industry-on-its-ear-in-a-fight-for-its-life.html?hp&_r=1 ) (and shared on Twitter) that didn’t happen a couple years ago, AT&T and T-Mobile. As with those two, it’s the same situation as the wireless carriers—which might as well be the internet providers too, as some of the main providers are the same in both arenas. And then the cell service carriers offer the very internet access that is used by those who are online only through the use of smartphones. Talk about a communications monopoly.

    These issues remind me of a class I took in my undergrad, in which we Comm majors were made aware—if we weren’t already—of the massive Communications companies in existence and just how widespread their empires happen to be. Clear Channel, for one. The extent of their reach was almost too great for me to comprehend, and I left that class with a very sour taste in my mouth for the Communications career world I was intending to graduate into.

    I feel like I kinda followed a tangent here, and perhaps this response turned into more of a rant than I meant it to, but my point is two-fold: 1, Norma, you’re right about the digital divide being much less of an issue than it might have been before, although yes, it is indeed still an issue. And 2, I don’t know what the answer to communications monopolies would be—maybe it’s regulatory policy or maybe it isn’t—, but at the very least, we should strive to keep our awareness level up as much as possible, and help those who are less in-touch with these concepts to be aware as well. I would say, to revise Crawford’s last sentence in the article, “If we want to be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure every American has decent medium-speed access to the Internet for a reasonable cost.”

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