Atone time, the telephone was considered a luxury. But as more and more people and businesses adopted this “new” technology, it became necessary to own one and stay connected to the masses.How could one exist in the 20th century without a phone?
Today the same can be said of the Internet. What was once a curiosity and a supplement to work and educational pursuits is now essential. How can one exist in the 21st century without Internet access?
“Internet access simply isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s a condition for full participation in social and economic life,” says Joe Karaganis, vice president, The American Assembly,a national, nonpartisan public affairs forum.
Although the Internet is open to all and in that regard quite equitable, the way in which one connects to the Internet is often quite inequitable. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measured“broadband” (a generic term for fast Internet) subscriptions per 100inhabitants –to better understand broadband penetration globally –and released a report in December of 2009. The OECD found that the U.S. has about 81 million broadband subscribers, the most in the world.But the percentage of Americans who have access to broadband is abysmal. Per capita, the United States ranks 15th in broadband access, with only 26 percent of Americans connecting to the Internet by broadband. Norway,which only has about six million broadband subscribers, leads the way in per capita broadband connectedness with 37 percent of its citizens connecting to the Internet through broadband, according to the OECD study.The Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Korea rank in the top five nations.
Similarly, the FCC surveyed 5,005 Americans in late 2009 and measured broadband access and privileges in households, in which there is typically more than one person. The FCC found that 67 percent of U.S.households contain a broadband user who accesses the service at home and that 65 percent of adults are broadband adopters. Both the OEDC and the FCC studies place the U.S. in the middle of the pack regarding broad-band penetration.
“The U.S. has fallen from the top to the lower middle of the rankings,both in terms of broadband penetration and quality of service, because most other countries made broad-band deployment a top national priority in the early 2000s, and invested and regulated accordingly. The U.S.left things entirely to the private sec-tor, which consolidated into a few giant companies that have not invest-ed as extensively in new infrastructure,” says Karaganis.
The lack of home broadband access, especially in low-income communities, could become a barrier to educational attainment.Arnoldo Mata, director of research,The Hispanic Institute, says that more and more colleges and universities are offering certain courses online only. And faced with significant budget cuts in the last two years,colleges and universities find that encouraging students to take online classes helps cut costs, while such courses reap more tuition and service fees because some schools charge extra fees for online classes.But online classes require broad-band, and for those students who do not have regular access to broad-band services, the push toward more or exclusively online classes could become an insurmountable obstacle.
To analyze the factors shaping low rates of adoption of home broad-band services specifically in low-income and other marginalized communities, the FCC commissioned the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Researchers from the SSRC, one of whom was Karaganis, interviewed some170 individuals among non adopters, community access providers and other intermediaries across the U.S. The resulting study, Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities, is the only large-scale qualitative investigation of barriers to adoption in the U.S., and complements recent FCC survey research on adoption designed to inform the 2010 National Broadband Plan.
The SSRC report presents a number of field reports that are quite revealing. For example, in New Mexico, where many college students are low-wage working adults,students have lower rates of home broadband access and computer ownership than the national average.In Albuquerque, N.M., researchers interviewed non adopters from three public colleges and universities. In some cases, these students wait all day to gain access to computers in the school’s crowded computer labs.One student actually chose classes based on the amount of time he was required to be online, and another rides his bicycle 17 miles, twice a week, to the nearest public library to avoid the overcrowded computer labs on campus. Yet another report-ed that an advanced placement teacher announced on the first day of class, “If you don’t have your own computer and home Internet access,don’t take this class.”
Many low-income adults who have returned to school to pursue or complete a college degree must balance work, family and their studies.To perform this balancing act, more and more are turning to community colleges and career colleges such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. Since students of these career colleges must complete the bulk of their course work via the Internet, low-income students without a broadband Internet connection face a huge disadvantage and need to navigate overcrowded computer labs and libraries to complete their assignments. “Relying on short sessions at the library or community center puts students at a significant disadvantage compared to those with more regular, on-demand access,” says Karaganis.
Visual anthropologist Amelia Bryne, director at Deep Tech, a research consultancy that investigates the relationship between information and communication technologies, worked on the SSRC report along with Karaganis.She says that many participants in the study reported difficulty completing their schoolwork because of a lack of reliable Internet access. And for those who are new to the computer,the difficulties are frequently exacerbated, with students often requiring extra time to accomplish tasks such as sending an e-mail or logging onto a secure site, both of which are routine for experienced computer users.“The pressure to get online and the consequences of being offline have increased as schools more frequently expect students to be online not only to do research, but also to communicate with teachers, take quizzes,get assignments, etc.,” says Bryne.
Bryne recalls the story of a middle-aged woman returning to school to finish her degree. Her lack of access and relative inexperience with computers was made more difficult because of the school’s assumption that students would have Internet access and would be computer savvy.Her professors often communicated with the class online, dispensing information that is not available in class and posting up-to-date information on the Internet. She ultimately withdrew from the online class because she could not meet the course expectations to be online fora few hours per day. This example illustrates the disconnect between what is expected of students – especially in terms of distance education – and the reality of many students’ financial and Internet access situation, says Bryne.Because of high demand, public Internet access points typically limit the amount of time an individual can use a computer to 30 minutes to one hour per day. This makes taking a course that requires significant Internet access quite difficult and makes this option a double-edge sword.
Mata says, “For low-income students who must work to pay for their tuition, books and fees, the availability of more online classes gives them more flexibility and options when picking their schedules while still being able to hold a job. However, this assumes that they can afford a broadband connection in the first place.”
Lack of broadband connectivity does not just affect students but also their parents. Parents, too, value home broadband connections, especially parents of students in middle school and beyond. Most parents interviewed by the SSRC researchers perceive the Internet as a universal library, and several encountered teachers who presumed regular Internet access at home. Some school systems have begun to structure education services accordingly. Many elementary and secondary school systems deliver services online.
Those parents without home Internet connections have worked shuttling their children from libraries and other third spaces(community centers, employment offices and other social service organizations) into their daily or weekly routine. But as the SSRC researchers found, many of these libraries and third spaces are consistently over-crowded during after-school hours with children and teenagers using the computers and printers, getting homework help and hanging outwith friends.
Karaganis says that libraries are the anchor institutions for broad-band access in low-income communities and, consequently, anchor institutions for the provision of a wide range of social and economic services. “Their role, in this context,goes way beyond the lending of books,” he says. But unfortunately, many municipalities have been slow to understand the library’s new role in education and often place them on the list of nonessential institutions targeted for cutbacks. So libraries are under extreme budget pressure precisely when their information services are in greatest demand from low-income constituents, says Karaganis.
Mata says that the availability of Internet services has drawn a tremendous number of people to libraries. While some had predicted that the Internet would lead to people abandoning libraries, the opposite has occurred. Libraries are swamped with people seeking free broadband service, primarily low-income individuals and families. The most recent recession has driven even more people to libraries as unemployed individuals conduct their job searches online at libraries. Consequently, students trying to access online classes and homework assistance have to compete with adults doing job searches, says Mata.
Bryne says the SSRC researchers, too, observed that high demand for public Internet and computer access often made it difficult for respondents to get sufficient computer time at these “third spaces.”
Assuming the library has not been closed by budget cuts, getting children to the library is not always an easy task for working parents. Many find that library hours are inconvenient for their work schedules. Libraries that are open only one or two nights a week might be adequate for picking up or returning lending materials but not for computer users looking to complete assignments. Many libraries in Albuquerque, for example, close at 6 p.m. on most days, making it difficult for working parents to get home,pick up the kids and get them to the library before the doors shut for the night. And those families that have home connections report that a single home computer is inadequate to handle the educational demands of all the children in the home. Many have to rely on a combination of home access and access at the library and other third spaces.
Bryne and her colleagues who worked on the study define employment, education and government services as the strongest drivers for broadband adoption. All three provide critical services and opportunities and are the reasons why individuals must be online today, whether they want to or not.
“In terms of higher education,online drivers include things like online applications for admission and financial aid, keeping in touch with professors, getting assignments,registering for classes, doing research, etc.,” Bryne says.
Because broadband access plays a critical role in expanding economic, health care, educational and public safety services in underserved rural communities, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the funding of 126 new Recovery Actbroad band infrastructure projects that will create jobs and provide rural residents in 38 states and Native American tribal areas access to improved service. This is the second round of USDA broadband funding through the Recovery Act. In all, $1.2 billion will be invested in the 126 broadband infrastructure projects through Recovery Act funding. An additional $117 million in private investment will be leveraged, bringing the total funds invested to $1.31 billion.
These broadband grants, administered by the USDA, are primarily meant to improve broadband availability in rural and remote areas, so the recent awards are in line with that mandate, says Bryne. “Availability is of course a crucial factor in getting home broadband access, and as far as we know, rural areas have more issues with availability than urban areas.Other important factors include value, usability and cost. That is to say,even if broadband is available,” says Bryne, “it doesn’t mean that it will be used, as potential users may face additional barriers to getting online.”