The Digital Divide is a Class Divide

google-fiber-620x426New Orleans     The Pew Research Center says that only 43% of households nationally with annual incomes of less than $25,000 have access to the internet compared to 70% nationally with broadband. Only 55% of African-Americans have broadband internet. Why? Well, not surprisingly, surveys conducted by independent sources, including pollsters hired by the Wall Street Journal to look at the results of Google’s super-fast Fiber service in Kansas City find that cost is increasingly the mountain creating the great divide in this area between rich and poor.

The Journal looked closely at the impact of Google Fiber’s entry into Kansas City in 2012, including its claim that its effort in KC was not just about fast service but also about bridging the digital divide. Their surveys found that in six low-income neighborhoods only 10% of residents were subscribing to Google Fiber with another 5% buying into a Google service for a slower speed that was free for seven years but required a $300 installation fee paid out at $25 per month. Some residents when interviewed found all of the Google pitch confusing to say the least.

ACORN in Canada and with our partners in the US in Pennsylvania and elsewhere and with Local 100 in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas has advocated to Comcast, Cox, Time Warner and others that low cost $10 per month plans would work if there were serious and aggressive outreach. To date, Comcast particularly has viewed real outreach into lower income neighborhoods as superfluous to their real interest in creating little more than a public relations and marketing campaign. Google to its credit seems to have taken some half-steps to try and get the job done, and reportedly went door-to-door with its employees in some of Kansas City neighborhoods and, according to the Journal “teamed up with community groups to spread the word,” as well as supporting some “nonprofit groups that offer classes on using the Internet and sell cheap refurbished computer.”

The Journal’s work was specific to Kansas City, so we don’t know what the penetration of Comcast’s service is in Little Rock or Houston on our lower income neighborhoods, except through our own doorknocking and the aggregate numbers which we have forced Comcast to report. As miserable as the 10% Google figure is, it overwhelms the miniscule participation in Comcast’s FCC-ordered $10 per month plan, which certainly bests $25 a month, and Comcast claims, though seldom delivered, a cheaply available, refurbished computer.

The surveys found that 21% of the folks that declined service in lower income, largely minority neighborhoods in Kansas City cited cost as the key factor. Others cited access to cheaper access through smartphones, which though less useful in handling applications still, is also where use is soaring in Africa and India.

By all accounts, Comcast was still going to make money at $10 per month, and Google was definitely not going to lose money even with its so-called “free” service on the slower, lower end in Kansas City. Nonetheless, it is unavoidable, and the FCC needs to take careful note of this, to conclude that if we want to lower the digital divide we are going to have to recognize that it is a class divide over affordability, and until we regulate some of the gross profit margins out of internet access and treat it as the vital public utility it is, this situation will only get worse and be more harmful to lower and moderate income families as costs continue to rise.

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