A Fresh Look at the Digital Divide

by Derek Murphy

A lot of funding is being invested in broadband infrastructure, which will bring high speed connectivity to many communities and regions around the world who previously did not have high speed access. As the number of communities without access to broadband declines, there will be room, both politically and financially, for other priorities. Within the context of the digital divide, what priorities need to be articulated and placed on the political and policy map?

For example, as planning and mapping efforts unfold across the United States, including our own SNG projects in North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, and Kentucky, more and more evidence is emerging of a shifting picture that is more complex than just “un-served” “under-served” and “served” as defined in the United States by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. These relatively broad categories have played their role, but need to evolve if they are going to be useful for future planning efforts based on evidence that we have recently collected.

“39% of households would very likely relocate to another community if broadband was not available. Over 55% of organizations say that broadband is essential for remaining in their current location.” Recent SNG Technical Report for a designated State broadband authority.

Unserved communities: Recent SNG research shows that the vast majority of businesses and organizations (97 percent) have Internet connectivity. As a consequence, unserved communities are now primarily composed of residential areas, rather than whole communities that include business districts. In addition to the impacts on individual households, there are two significant dimensions to the digital divide faced by unserved communities. First, the higher the percentage of areas having broadband connectivity, the greater is the disadvantage experienced by the remaining unserved communities. e-Solutions Benchmarking data show a pronounced tendency of businesses and households to make decisions on where to locate based on the availability of high speed and reliable broadband. Second, a large percentage of economically active households use their home to generate income, either through teleworking or home based businesses. With economically active households making locational decisions with connectivity in mind, rural areas without broadband will lose economically active households, with major negative impacts on their long term sustainability.

Unserved pockets within served communities: SNG research has shown that these areas are primarily low density residential areas, usually rural and/or low income. Mapping efforts have been useful in identifying unserved communities but may be less effective at identifying the pervasive but smaller unserved areas within “served” communities. These low density areas provide a poor business case for infrastructure investments by current Internet Service Providers. Small areas are less likely to be the focus of infrastructure funding programs. As current efforts have their desired impact of reducing the number of unserved communities, it can be anticipated that a larger portion of unserved households will fall within this category of “unserved pockets within served communities.” Any strategy to address this aspect of the digital divide will necessarily be different from strategies used for unserved communities. The small scale and scattered nature of the target of population, together with the lack of institutional capacity, will require more imaginative approaches, either with incumbent ISPs or with small but agile wireless ISPs.

Uncompetitive Broadband: There already is significant recognition that much of the existing broadband infrastructure in North America consists of relatively low speed technologies. Fifty percent of the business respondents to a recent statewide SNG survey had upload speeds of less than 700kbps. Additionally, a significant portion of respondents indicated that they were unsatisfied with the speed and/or reliability of their broadband connection. This level of dissatisfaction can be expected to increase as reliance on Internet increases and the gaps between levels of service increases between highly served and poorly served areas.

While much of the current debate on “better broadband” focuses on improving speeds, the reliability issue should be considered as an equal or higher priority. Recent SNG surveys show that reliability and availability of redundancy are increasingly important to many businesses and organizations who state that the Internet is essential to their operations. For these organizations, availability of reliable service and redundancy will play an increasingly large role in their location decisions.

Over the few years, analysts and policy makers have used various terms to describe the need for “better broadband.” However, there remains the danger of using a simple threshold to determine whether a community or region has the desired level of Internet connectivity. A fundamentally stronger concept is that of “competitive broadband.” Competitive broadband recognizes that upgrades to infrastructure are required well into the future to maintain competitiveness globally and regionally. Without competitive infrastructure, businesses and people will quickly or slowly move to greener pastures.

Need for Mobile Broadband: while not the focus of this article, there needs to be acknowledgement of the growing role that mobile broadband plays. In SNG research, organizations and businesses state that mobile Internet is essential to their operations. The use of mobile devices and applications for “untethered access” is expected to continue to grow and become increasingly integrated into how organizations use the Internet. In planning and designing future broadband initiatives, care needs to be taken that the lack of mobile broadband doesn’t become the latest symptom of a digital divide.

As communities and regions absorb the impacts of recently announced broadband investments in infrastructure, planning and adoption, it will be important that we not remain stuck in the terminology and concepts that guided these investment programs. The very success of these investments will require us to evolve our analysis and planning.


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