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Part of the digital divide will never be bridged – so be it

Submitted by on Wednesday, 24 February 2010 No Comment

Two contradictory tidbits from a CNet story this morning about an Federal Communications Commission report on expanding broadband Internet access to more parts of the country:

  • A third of adults who don’t have broadband at home cited cost – monthly fees, costs of computers, installation fees – as the main reason.
  • Lowering monthly fees to $10 would change participation rates only by eight percentage points.

At the risk of sounding harsh, if you won’t pay even $10 a month for broadband, you don’t want it very badly. That’s less than the cost of four gallons of gasoline. Considerably less than the average cable bill. Far less than the average phone bill. And I bet the slow-speed adults don’t balk at paying for gas, cable or telephones.

That’s because people view those as essential in their lives. Broadband service doesn’t quite rise to that level for many Americans. For folks who fall into that category, the barrier isn’t price. The barrier is mentality – they simply don’t want or think they need broadband. Yes, we could “educate” them as to the value of broadband, as the new FCC report also suggests, telling them that it can easily replace telephone, cable and part of the gasoline bill.

But to what end? We cannot force people to join the digital world. If we’re going to “educate” folks, let’s enlighten those -particularly parents – who don’t want broadband because they fear the wickedness of the Web. I’ll  volunteer to teach that class anywhere, any day.

I suspect many non-joiners fall into the same demographic as a 70-year-old I know, who could get high-speed access through a satellite provider. Granted, at more than $50 a month it’s pricey even by my standards – roughly twice the cost of DSL where I live and more than I pay for fiber optic service. But it’s still cheaper than a cell phone. And it’s not that out of line with the national broadband average of $41.

The real reasons the 70-year-old doesn’t sign up? When she was on dial-up, she said, all she did was play cards once in a while and delete email spam. Plus computers “make her stomach hurt.” Would paying $10 a month ease her pain? Probably. But I’d buy a lot of things I’m not particularly dying to have if the going rate fell that far below the current cost.

Yes, we need to expand affordable broadband access in this country and the government will play a role in that. It’s called infrastructure, folks, and these days it’s almost as important as roads. I’m hard-pressed to see how children are going to compete in tomorrow’s economy if they fall behind from the start in learning the technology. And, yes, price is a barrier for some – only 40 percent of households with incomes below $20,000 a year have broadband, compared to 65 percent of the nation as a whole, according to the FCC.

But we’re making a big policy mistake if we throw money at trying to price broadband at $10 for everyone. Some folks still won’t be interested.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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