Former FCC Commissioner Clyburn on digital divide. Is urban really in worse shape?

The NY Times recently asked Former FCC Commissioner a few questions related to closing the digital divide. It’s an interesting article – I wanted to pull out just a few questions/answers..

Many people who may not have broadband lines into their home get online through their phones. Perhaps we should view smartphone access as an imperfect substitute?

They are complements but not substitutes because there are certain things that can’t be done on smartphones. Look, if we have seen 45 states with frameworks where one in five public assistance programs are online, you need full access to the internet. The opportunity of a fixed broadband connection is so much greater, by way of speeds, the ability to fill out all forms and transfer files. …

What’s the best example of how broadband access improves lives?

In a pilot project in Ruleville, Mississippi, 100 diabetics used broadband to regularly connect with doctors online. In the first year, none of those patients had hospital visits. It saved $339,000 in Medicaid spending.

And one answer with which I don’t fully agree…

There isn’t incentive for carriers to go into low-income areas where they may not make as much money. How do you balance their business concerns with your public interest concerns?

Urban areas are more difficult from where I sit. In rural areas, people get the business issues and we have things like the Connect America Fund so money can flow to rural areas that cost more to serve.

When you have dense urban areas, where on paper things seem to be working as far as the infrastructure being there, it’s more difficult to solve the problems.

Let’s take D.C. Across the street from my home is what people would call a public housing complex. Their world is completely different from mine. We are on the same block. And I guarantee you there is an affordability component that will prevent many of them from regular connectivity. Too many of us don’t have the sensitivity of that and say things like “these people can go to the library to get online.”

First, the Connect America Fund (at least Phase 2) is not open to all rural areas. And where it is available, it is up to the incumbent provider to take advantage of the funding and to use the funding in a given area. Second, I think the Commissioner is comparing all households in rural areas to low-income households in urban areas. I think it might be more apt to compare low-income households in rural and urban. One of the reasons she may have missed that is because there’s a greater volume of low-income residents in urban areas – that’s the nature of urban areas. They are most densely populated. Because of the sheer math difference I’m afraid that low-income households may fall through cracks. (Although as a broader swath of households in rural areas lack broadband more may reach the tipping point into becoming low-income.)

There are some issues shared by low income households in rural and urban areas – ongoing subscription costs of connectivity, lack of technology to access broadband (computers, smartphones), limited experience or comfort using technology and limited time to invest in the effort. Efforts used to reduce those issues will help in rural and urban areas. On top of those efforts, rural residents can add availability of broadband.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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