New Orleans The facts eventually silence the press releases, or at least that should be the case, especially when it comes to trying to close the gaping internet divide for lower income workers and minorities in the United States. Figures now indicate that despite the Obama Administration’s expenditure of $7 billion to expand internet access, the financial mountain that private companies are forcing consumers to climb, means that the needle has not moved and 20% of our population, some 60 million, are still left on the other side of the divide.
If you have some college and are living in a household making more than $50,000, then you are likely on-line, but for older Americans only a bit more than 50% are on-line compared to 75% under 65. For white households 76% are online, but for African-American households the number is only 57%. And, of course if you live in the South in Mississippi, Alabama, or of course Arkansas, then in this area as in so many others, you’re bumping the bottom of the barrel.
The biggest problem is cost. The Obama Administration’s investment went into building physical infrastructure, which of course is more of an invested subsidy for private, monopolistic providers than users. Between building and training, the Commerce Department reports than more than 500,000 new customers signed up with the private companies, but these direct private subsidies and the neoliberal commitment to voluntary corporate solutions is not narrowing the divide. Internationally the US has fallen to 7th from its earlier position as 4th in the world at the rate of adoption.
A New York Times article reports that the much ballyhooed voluntary program by Comcast, that we have frequently cited as the best of example of a failure in this regard by both the FCC and the company, after two years has signed up less 8.5% or 220,000 households according to the company’s own figures or 1 in every 12 of 2.6 million eligible households even within the restrictive Comcast guidelines of school lunch eligible families with children in school. In a glaring understatement, Thomas C. Power, the administration’s deputy chief technology officer for telecommunications was finally quoted as saying in response to these figures and Comcast’s disappointing results, “…I also know we need to make more progress.”
To make progress we need a real FCC presence, real regulation, and a program that guarantees access to all Americans at affordable cost, not a monopoly subsidy and a half-hearted, back stepping voluntary effort from companies who would rather make more money on higher charges for slower service to richer households. How far do we have to fall behind the rest of the world before we get real action on internet access?