Sipping from the Broadband Fire Hose

It's become clear that a fast Internet connection does not necessarily equal fast access to opportunity.
May 28, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

In a rapidly changing global environment, the "digital divide" is growing wider. Lack of affordable broadband access is part of the problem; but, perhaps more important, a lack of Internet literacy threatens to keep many people and communities stranded on the far side of the divide. It's become clear that a fast Internet connection does not necessarily equal fast access to opportunity.

Several communities have ambitiously approached broadband access as an economic-development strategy, but they've hit roadblocks as they and providers struggle with alternative business models, political pressures to limit competition, and, increasingly, the realization that technology applications carry embedded obsolescence.

Universal broadband access won't solve this last problem, which suggests some interesting twists on Marshall McLuhan's predictive observations about the impact of the age of technology: The rapidity of change in the medium should make public officials and civic leaders focus on the message.

When Philadelphia selected EarthLink to provide citywide Wi-Fi, it also created a nonprofit with a mandate to address the challenges and opportunities of stretching across the digital divide -- a particularly formidable goal in a city with one of the lowest educational attainment levels in the country. When the technology deal faltered, Mayor Michael Nutter correctly observed, "The world of technology is ... constantly changing and we have to leave our options open."

So from the perspective the digital divide, what's more important: the medium (broadband access) or the message (the tools to use it to enhance economic opportunity)?

It's increasingly evident that the digerati, big universities, academic medical centers, private employers and many public-sector agencies will adopt rapidly evolving capabilities relatively quickly. But bridging the digital divide is going to need a much more proactive effort not just to provide access, but also to stimulate appetite and provide opportunity for those households on the other side of the divide.

It's a mistake to believe that only going as far as providing affordable Internet access and free computers will be transformative. Access does not always mean opportunity. Public-sector agencies and nonprofits working on improving educational attainment and workforce skills, or expanding the "digital civic square," need to drive the demand for innovative applications before the potential of the Internet can be significantly widened.

Offer an average urban school district a high-speed connection to universities, cultural institutions and medical facilities, and the district will struggle to build and use applications that enrich the school experience. One observer in Cleveland, which has done just that, compared it to trying to drink a sip of water from a fire hose. It's hard to figure out how to harness the force.

An affordable-housing developer in one urban center outfitted its units with high-speed Internet access, computers and even instructional workshops. The labs are well used, but in general, home usage mirrored that of the general public: games, shopping, sports, Facebook and YouTube. Having Internet access and basic computer skills may give a much-needed boost of confidence to a new entrant into the workforce, but long-term success will only come if the skills are much more fully developed.

Simply the presence of a computer in the home is unlikely to generate interests in educational advancement, skills enhancement and civic affairs that does not already exist. Google may be an advance for the household that once used dictionaries and encyclopedias to settle dinnertime arguments, but if that rich learning environment isn't already in place, a good search engine will sit unused.

Just as the appetite is stimulated by enticing offerings, promising new tastes and experiences, the world of online access demands applications that allow households to engage and connect from their own starting points. Unfortunately, limited resources and imagination often mean that electronic offerings are as lifeless as the hard-copy material that spawned them. Indeed, such applications are even less appealing now when compared to the dynamic personality of commercial material.

The most telling evidence of this problem in the public sector is usually the job title of the person responsible for advancing broadband innovation. If it's a technology guy, you can be almost sure that end-user content is taking a backseat to bits-per-second competition.

Long overshadowed by the access goal, the content challenge is finally getting more attention. Efforts such as One Economy Corporation -- which offers attractive, user-friendly and pragmatic tools for household management, civic affairs and parent-school-student interaction -- are promising, but limited in scope. More localized efforts -- such as New Jersey's Hopeworks 'N Camden, which teaches teenagers about Web-based vocations -- can lead some across the bridge, but currently touch few.

E.E. Schattschneider's classic, "Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America," is worth a fresh read to underscore how much bias in our systems has remained constant. To paraphrase, "The flaw in the [Internet] heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong [digital] accent."

The stakes could not be much higher in our globally competitive world.