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Broadband Digital Divide Still Needs Addressing

November 7, 2012

While today nearly 90 percent of Americans own a “computerized gadget” like a cell phone, computer, or tablet and only 19 million do not have access to broadband, according to Hanns Kuttner, an expert on economics at the Hudson Institute, the digital divide has not gone away. In fact, Kuttner warns, it could get worse. According to Daily Yonder, Kuttner believes “The technology gap is not a fixed deficit that once filled, stays filled. The technology gap will be larger—much larger—in the future, along with the information and technology gap, unless significant action is taken to overcome it.”

Kuttner is right, of course. Though household broadband access has grown nearly 25-fold in the last decade, broadband speed – and the divide between the haves and have nots in that regard – continues to be a significant concern. Certainly this challenge is why dozens of cities competed for Google’s first one gig broadband service and there has been so much attention heaped on government-owned networks like Chattanooga EPB that promise one gig service. (Check out our comparison of the two systems, one private, one public.)

As Daily Yonder points out, slower speeds mean difficulty downloading video and even text. The plodding speeds have economic, educational and social impacts, on the small business owner placing an order with a wholesaler in another country, the teacher trying to conduct an online field trip for students who could never travel to the actual venue, a primary care physician trying to consult with a specialist a few hundred miles away. Yonder says “9.8 million of rural Americans currently lack access to broadband speeds sufficient to handle these new functions.”

Kuttner’s recent report argues the divide has contributed to a widening education gap, lower growth and wages and inferior medical care. He does not outline solutions for the gap, but reiterates to policymakers that the issue is an urgent one.

We agree, but it does matter how we achieve faster speeds. Government-owned networks like Chattanooga EPB spend millions of taxpayer dollars and fail to provide the promised service at reasonable rates to consumers (the one gig service would cost users tens of thousands of dollars a month). Others, like UTOPIA in Utah, are far behind schedule, have few subscribers and have resulted in tax increases. Other systems have been sold by the cities that run them at a loss.

Private providers of broadband have increased access to U.S. households from eight million ten years ago to more than 200 million today. They were the innovators when it came to access. If the right policies are put in place, specifically ones limiting advantages and subsidies to government-owned networks, they will be the ones that drive increased speeds as well.