Broadening Broadband: Most Experts Agree That Broadband Would Benefit Everyone, but a Digital Divide Still Exists

Article excerpt

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Back at the turn of the century, you could finish off a large, non-fat, decal, caramel latte with no foam in the time it took your computer to load a website. Now it happens before your second sip, virtually instantaneously, via a high-speed broadband connection.

Almost two-thirds of Americans now use broad band to connect to the Internet, up from just 3 percent in 2000, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And even though broadband is becoming more available, not everyone is taking advantage of its potential benefits. After a decade of strong growth, the public's adoption of broadband started to slow in 2009, just as $293 million in grants for new broadband projects from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were being directed to states.

Who's Using Broadband?

Two recent surveys, one by the Pew project in 2012 and another by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in late 2010, confirm that gaps in broadband use among demographic groups remain. People who are poor, disabled, elderly, less-educated, single, unemployed, from a minority group or who live in rural areas lag behind in having Internet access at home and broadband specifically.

And despite the growing importance of the Internet to everyday life, more than one-quarter of Americans choose not to use the Internet at all. They cite lack of a computer, no need or interest, the irrelevancy of the Internet to their lives, high cost and difficulty of use for not subscribing to broadband.

The Benefits of Broadband

But citizens are at a huge disadvantage without the ability to connect, and some policymakers are working to change that. Students with broadband at home have a 6 percent to 8 percent higher graduation rate compared to similar students without broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Broadband access and home computer use also correlate positively to higher academic achievement and better test scores.

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In addition, a growing number of jobs require computer skills--50 percent today, and an expected 77 percent in the next decade. Indeed, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies currently require job applicants to apply online, according to the FCC.

"One thing we know is that Internet access can take people beyond their borders," Delegate Meshea Poore (D) of West Virginia says. "Kids sometimes have never gone outside their immediate community and don't know what other options they have, or can't see what's possible for them." She also believes it's important to have community services in place so that when broadband service becomes available, training and computers are available, too.

"Broadband is important to make sure all citizens are able to participate in distance learning, teleworking, telemedicine and other activities that will modernize the way people are educated, work and receive health care," says Delegate Joe T. May (R), a member of Virginia's Broadband Advisory Council and the Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS). "Broadband guarantees that all citizens will have the chance to participate in the global economy."

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Broadband is becoming increasingly important in the health care arena as well. A New York Law School report, "Broadband Adoption: Why It Matters and How It Works," documents general economic effects of broadband as well as the benefits in delivering health care. "Broad band-enabled telemedicine and health information technology services ... extend the range of enhanced medical services to rural parts of the country, streamline the administration of health care, enable a wide array of cost savings, and empower individuals to have more control over medical decisions," the report says.

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Federal Support for Broadband

Federal funds helped create task forces to devise the means to increase access to broadband. …