The Digital Divide Is Now All About Affordable Data Access

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-12-25

The Digital Divide Is Now All About Affordable Data Access

For all practical purposes, the digital divide in the western world has vanished. Computers and computing platforms are available to anyone, sometimes at very little cost, and sometimes for free. Training on how to use those devices is now readily available in schools and elsewhere, also for free. By the time students reach middle school, computer use is routine.

This is important to the global economy because computer literacy, as we used to call it, is a necessity for nearly any task in today’s world and is a part of most jobs in some way. While access to computing devices lags elsewhere in the world, it’s not lagging by much. But it seems that access to data, especially wireless access, hasn’t kept up.

And access to wireless data isn’t a problem just in the third world or among the urban poor. It’s a problem to anyone in the U.S. who doesn’t have a good enough job to afford $100 a month to pay for it. In the U.S., access to wireless data is something for the rich who live in areas where they can be connected. The poor, whether they live in the city or in rural areas, need not apply.

If you’re not at least fairly well-off, you can’t afford those pricey mobile share-everything plans. Even the low-cost, prepaid data plans for most carriers don’t go below $20 per month, which may not sound like a lot to you, but could be a week’s worth of bread and milk for a struggling family.

Meanwhile, hardware makers are stepping up to the challenge. According to our former sister publication, PC Magazine, Acer is getting ready to sell a 7-inch Android tablet for under $100. Amazon Kindle e-readers start at $69. Used desktop computers, which may not be the fastest or coolest, but which work well for Internet access are available at little or no cost to anyone who needs them from a wide variety of sources.

But then there’s the issue of Internet access. While you really need a computer these days for everything from homework to job hunting, you also need the data to go with it. And where do you get that? Those Kindle e-readers need WiFi which is at least available for free in a number of places from your public library toStarbucks. But you can’t lug that desktop computer to Starbucks. So what do you do?

If you’re poor then you have to hope that you live in a community that mandates the availability of cable service to everyone and that the mandated cable service is affordable. However cable service or DSL service, if that’s what you can get, starts at that same $20 a month.

The Digital Divide Is Now All About Affordable Data Access

The only alternative is wireline phone service which requires a slow analog modem and can cost as little as 11 dollars a month. But how can you do homework or look for jobs on an analog connection? The answer is that if it works at all, you will find that it takes a very long time to load a web page at 54 kbps. Good luck with that.

But suppose that you’re poor and rural—or even not-so-poor and rural? The ugly truth about rural broadband service is that it’s mostly not there at all, except for pricy satellite services that start at about $40 per month for limited data plans. These plans do provide access, but not everyone can use them. And while there are government subsidies available, not everyone qualifies. But forget cable access. Cable companies have no interest in stringing lines sparsely-populated rural areas.

What this boils down to is that if you live in the ‘burbs or in the city, you can get Internet access if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, you’d best hope that you live near an area with free WiFi or municipal broadband. But if you don’t live in these areas, you’re out of luck unless you bring home a decent pay check. For the rural poor, the data divide is very real.

Of course, many of you probably don’t care. You’re a tech person. You’re working in IT where salaries are good. You can afford the fastest network access available, along with an iPhone, an iPad and anything else you want to access data. This isn’t your problem, right?

But it is your problem. Any time a portion of the population is excluded from participating in the digital economy, it hurts the economy. In times of economic stress, this exclusion slows the recovery and limits the extent of the recovery. It also means that some portions of the economy aren’t able to compete.

But maybe you do care. Maybe you’re in a position where your employer can put some pressure on communications providers to find a way to help those who need it in a meaningful way, such as low-or no-cost data access. Perhaps you can donate Internet access to shelters and employment centers.

Or maybe you’re in a position where you can make this happen yourself. Either way, the data divide is fast becoming an economic tragedy that will separate a new class of have-nots from everyone else. Maybe in this season of giving, you can find a way.

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