The wrong digital divide

The New York Times reports that the long-heralded digital divide between white and black Americans on the internet is closing rapidly.

Well, that’s good. But I say that was inevitable as equipment and connectivity spread while content and services grew and prices fell. The market is taking care of that.

The digital divide we should be paying more attention to is the divide between America’s broadband infrastructure and those of Japan, South Korea, Finland, and even France. That is where we are falling behind. We are already at a strategic and business disadvantage to these other nations. If we do not make it a national priority to catch up and surpass their broadband distribution, they will catch up to and surpass our major industries of information, entertainment, technology, and advertising. But if we meet this strategic imperative, we will serve to narrow not only the external but the internal divides. That is the problem with paying atatention to the wrong divide.

I can be assured that at every conference I attend that has anything to do with the internet and is not purely a greedy business confab, someone will raise the flag of this digital divide. The commonly accepted creed has been that the internet is the playground of the rich and white and that the poor and other ethnic groups cannot join in.

When this is raised, it’s sometimes hard to know what to reply. I remember Jay Rosen giving a good answer at a journalism education meeting about two years ago and I won’t try to misquote or badly paraphrase him but I’ll give you my mangled version: I do, indeed, wish that more people of all economic and cultural groups were online and well-equipped and interacting at broadband speed. But there’s precious little I can do about that, being neither a technologist nor a telecom …. nor a policymaker. So does this mean, when challenged with the digital divide, that I should not do what I am doing? Or I should do less of it? I shouldn’t blog until everyone blogs? What’s the right answer? More to the point: What’s the politically correct answer? That is never made clear. People raise this banner and all around the room — usually among rich, white, technically experienced people — there is a chorus of concerned head-nodding. But what, exactly, are we expected to do?

The analogy would be if, in the ’50s, someone raised his hand at such a whither-media confab and said that there’s an analog divide with broadcast, between radio and TV. And so what should we have done: Not make more TV shows? Not bring the news to TV? Not increase demand to increase production to lower prices to expand distribution to shrink that particular electronic divide? No, TV became ubiquitous quite on its own, via the marketplace.

Compare this with the legislation to handle the telephonic divide that still haunts and hampers the telecom industry. We are all charged fees to pay for basic phone service to the poor. And that certainly is a worthy endeavor. But now, officially designated telecom providers and the FCC get their knickers in gordian knots trying to collect, distribute, and adminster these funds. And they complain that newcomers, such as Skype and Vonage, are not similarly encumbered. Some respond that these upstarts, too, should be made to suffer under this expensive bureacracy (see the “level playing field” argument in the post below, also related to the FCC). But it’s the upstarts that keep lowering the price of communication.

Imagine if all of us who have cell phones were taxed to provide cells to the cellless. We’re not, because cell phones, like TVs and cable boxes, are considered luxuries. Basic phone service is considered a necessity.

Broadband connectivity is fast becoming a necessity as well. And so the answer to the real divide is to increase connectivity and speed for everyone, not just the rich, not just the poor. Competition — including from municipalities if local telecom companies won’t do the job — will assure better connectivity at lower prices with more openness (for only monopolies can get away with making a business from stopping us from getting what we want) with greater adoption.