Why digital disparity persists

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When he launched his “Broadband for All” initiative in 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said “access to high-speed internet is critical to ensuring that all New Yorkers can reach their full potential in today’s technology-driven world.”

The plan, which Cuomo described as the largest and most ambitious state broadband investment in the nation, called for spending $500 million to achieve statewide broadband access by 2018. The money, drawn from capital acquired in bank settlements, would be used to give private companies incentives to expand high-speed broadband access in remote, unserved areas statewide.

The program’s website claims the governor “has now secured high-speed internet upgrades for approximately 2.42 million locations statewide, which means 99.9 percent of New Yorkers will have access to broadband.”

In fact, as the site’s residential broadband availability map shows, the New NY Broadband Program missed its 2018 deadline. A number of the projects have not been completed, and for many rural New Yorkers—including residents of the Finger Lakes region—reliable high-speed internet remains a dream unfulfilled.

Critics of the program say it’s another example of Cuomo failing to deliver on an extravagant promise. Among them, state Sen. Robert Ortt, a Republican from suburban Buffalo, has called for an investigation of the broadband program.

Yet even if the program’s goal is achieved, it will not guarantee high-speed internet service in every New York household. Why? Because the “digital divide”—the gap between those who can readily access up-to-date computer technology and the internet, and those who cannot—is not defined solely by geography. Income matters too. State-of-the-art infrastructure does not bring broadband access to those who cannot afford it.

The gap that remains

Throughout the Rochester-Finger Lakes region, the digital divide overall is narrowing, census data show. In the 2013 one-year estimates, 88 percent of households in metropolitan Rochester had a computer and 79 percent had broadband internet. By 2017, those numbers had risen to 94 percent and 88 percent, respectively.

The city of Rochester lags the metro area, but its gains over the four-year period were bigger. City households with a computer increased to 89 percent from 79 percent, while those with broadband service jumped to 81 percent from 63 percent.

Livingston and Wayne counties—both with more than 50 percent rural populations—also saw the divide narrow. In Livingston County, households with a computer increased to 96 percent from 87 percent; broadband service rose to 91 percent from 79 percent. The gains in Wayne County were to 93 percent from 87 percent (computer) and to 86 percent from 74 percent (broadband).

A troubling gap remains, however, when the data are segmented by income—regardless of location. Regionwide, only 61 percent of households with less than $20,000 in annual income have broadband service; in the city, the share is 59 percent (a difference well within the statistical margin of error). In Livingston County, the figure is higher (68 percent); in Wayne County, it’s lower (51 percent).

At the higher end of the income scale, with household income of $75,000 or more, the story is remarkably similar in the city of Rochester, largely urban Monroe County, more rural Livingston and Wayne counties, and the region as a whole: 94 percent to 96 percent of households have broadband service.

In short, a gap of roughly 25 percentage points separates low- and high-income families. The lack of broadband pipeline isn’t the big problem; it’s affordability.

Why digital disparity matters

Cuomo is not the first New York governor to underline what’s at stake with the digital divide. Seven years before the Broadband for All initiative was launched, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer warned in his first State of Upstate Address that “in a digital age, businesses, families and individuals who lack broadband access find their economic and educational opportunities limited.”

A recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data highlighted what’s often referred to as the “homework gap”—the fact that school-age children in lower-income households are likely to lack broadband access. Pew also conducted a nationwide survey of more than 700 U.S. teens, which found that 24 percent of those whose annual family income is less than $30,000 say the lack of a dependable computer or internet connection “often or sometimes prohibits them from finishing their homework.”

The Pew survey found that black teens who lack access to digital technologies at home “are especially likely to face these school-related challenges.” Nationwide, one-quarter of black teens say at least sometimes they cannot complete their homework because they lack digital access.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has described the homework gap as “the cruelest part of the digital divide.” It’s hard to argue with that; the climb out of poverty is even harder for students who lack digital tools readily available to their more affluent peers. Yet this disparity is damaging in other ways too. It shackles the earning potential of individuals already in the labor force and the growth prospects of businesses in disadvantaged areas.

A Microsoft study of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data shows the highest jobless rates often are located in the counties with the lowest availability of broadband service. The National Federation of Independent Business says lack of reliable high-speed internet access stunts the growth of businesses in many rural communities. While both focused on access, affordability is not a minor matter for sole proprietors and small firms that are barely scraping by.

What can be done?

In a recent blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith noted that the federal government over the last five years had spent more than $22 billion in subsidies and grants to telecommunications carriers to upgrade and extend broadband in rural America. “Despite these efforts,” he wrote, “the country’s adoption of broadband hasn’t budged much since 2013.” In response, his company’s Microsoft Airband Initiative is promoting a model that combines wireless technologies including 4G and TV white spaces (the unused channels between TV broadcasts), traditional fiber-based connectivity, and satellite coverage.

The Cleveland-based nonprofit DigitalC represents another approach, building teams of local and regional technology leaders to spur access to and adoption of digital technologies. Ultimately, the goal is neighborhoods empowered by technology and data-driven civic agendas.

In New York, completion of the Broadband for All initiative is the sensible way to get high-speed internet to unserved and underserved areas. This must be true broadband that meets the 100 Mbps standard, not satellite-delivered internet that falls far short.

Getting the household broadband subscription rate close to 100 percent by ensuring affordability could be the tougher nut to crack. The Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program offers a $9.25 monthly subsidy, but as in most states, New York’s participation rate is less than one-third of eligible residents—which, in part, could suggest that for many people the subsidy does not make enough of a difference. What’s more, the FCC under Trump appointee Ajit Pai has proposed removing wireless resellers that participate in the Lifeline program to spur expansion by network-owning providers—a move that critics say will not grow the broadband infrastructure but likely will harm families whose only connection to the internet is by smartphone.

So, if Cuomo truly believes that internet connectivity today is a necessity, not a luxury, he must figure out a way to work with local governments statewide to help bring down the cost of broadband service for low-income individuals. Otherwise, no amount of “last mile” funding will put access to the digital age within their reach.



One thought on “Why digital disparity persists

  1. If the internet had come along in the 60s instead of the 90s, we’d have had universal municipal broadband for at least the past decade. So sad that we long ago stopped believing in society. We are all consumers now, and problems can’t be solved unless some corporation can make a profit from it.

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