As new technologies mature to become a basic service to the public, there have always been haves and have-nots. One hundred years ago, the telephone could be found in only wealthier homes, but today it would be unimaginable for a household to be denied such basic communication.
According to a recent study by the PewResearchCenter, three out of four adults have internet access in the US. But the "digital divide" remains: internet access is significantly lower for low income households, minorities and the elderly. How we access the internet has rapidly transitioned from dial-up connections to broadband, whether using cable or DSL. That these two technologies compete for customers, rather than companies using a shared platform have slowed progress towards universal access.
Is universal internet access a basic service, a moral and social imperative? The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) apparently believes it is, by launching the ambitious National Broadband Plan to support high speed access to more than 100 million households by 2020, backed by a budget of $15.5 billion. With such a large investment from our government to support the necessary infrastructure, a goal of universal access may be attainable. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seems to agree as well, having articulated a goal towards a global "knowledge society" based upon open access to information.
While the "digital divide" still exists, broadband costs are inexpensive in the US compared to other countries, averaging less than 0.5% of income. This is in sharp contrast to India and China, where access can cost between 5 and 10% of income.
The Global Broadband Spectrum by Matt Mahoney
Image used with permission by author Matt Mahoney (Technology Review published by MIT)
Consider the global landscape portrayed in the "Graphiti" above. The horizontal measures how many people subscribe to broadband services, ranging from 0.1 per 100 inhabitants, to universal access. Tracing vertically, you can see faster speeds from 0.3 Mb/sec to 40 Mb/sec a circle at the extreme upper right hand corner represents universal access at high speeds. To give you an idea of the speed of information transfer, you could download a DVD-quality movie in about ten minutes if your connection were at 50 Mb/sec.
Of course, the speed of information transfer offers far more than convenient entertainment. It could benefit teaching and ultimately our economy. Schools in poor districts with insufficient funds to provide required texts could become transformed if students had open access to the internet, since many educational materials are available at no cost. Given a laptop with a wireless connection, the potential for a child's education is vastly improved. Programs such as One Laptop Per Child are devoted to this goal for developing countries, for a cost of only $199 per laptop. Why not use such programs for the US? Open access to information could become a great equalizer, opening up better education at less cost, preparing students for our future workforce regardless of local school budgets.
Looking at this "Graphiti", you can see right away that access and speed of the broadband spectrum in the US is well behind South Korea, Japan and Scandinavia, boosted by large public and private corporate investments. Yes, the cost is higher in these regions. The FCC's National Broadband Plan could make the US more competitive in this digital race.
Can broadband access benefit the economy and improve job opportunities? While this question is still being debated, a study at MIT and the Brookings Institute concluded that for each percentage point increase in broadband access, an employment increase of 0.2 to 0.3 percent results. If this correlation holds true a 10% increase in access would translate into a 2 to 3% increase in employment - the FCC's plan would indeed improve job opportunities and benefit the economy.