The geographic digital divide - Technical.ly

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Dec. 10, 2015 12:34 pm

The geographic digital divide

If broadband unlocks our digital future, the Brookings Institution's Adie Tomer writes, we've got a local adoption problem.

Who's connected? Who's not?

(Photo by Flickr user Marc Levin, used under a Creative Commons license)

This is a guest post by Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
Everywhere you turn, the transition to a digitally connected future is well underway.

Students watch class and do homework online, workers find and apply for new jobs via internet postings and travelers hail rides and check-in for flights via their smartphones. Five of the country’s 20 most valuable companies exclusively manufacture products and services designed around digital communications, while the fastest growing metropolitan economies are synonymous with those industries. Even governments are transitioning to digital platforms for their services.

To complete this transition to an all-inclusive digital future — one where all relevant products and services can benefit from a high-speed connection — will require the country to confront an infrastructure reality. Simply put, not everyone currently subscribes to broadband.

Based on 2014 Census data, only 75 percent of Americans live in a household with a private high-speed internet connection. This includes an even more obvious digital divide by income, education, age and other demographic factors.

Yet what these national figures obscure is significant variation by geography.

Using that same Census data, the Brookings Institution recently published a report to assess what broadband adoption looks like across the country. While at least 85 percent of households in advanced industrial centers like San Jose, San Diego, and Seattle subscribe to a broadband connection, less than 70 percent of households subscribe to a broadband connection in lower-income and less-educated metro areas like Birmingham, Ala., Jackson, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn.

Effectively, the country has a geographic digital divide.

Communities locked out of broadband.

Communities locked out of broadband. (Image courtesy of Brookings)

The broadband adoption gaps are a significant barrier to economic opportunity, both for American households and American businesses. It’s difficult to do homework, find a job, or buy cheaper goods online if there’s no high-speed connection in the home. In turn, it also means digital content creators, software coders and entrepreneurs broadly are missing an opportunity to reach the largest possible audience for their products. Likewise, governments will have trouble shutting down their old analog systems if not all residents can get online to pay parking tickets or find the nearest community center.

Overall, these implications should be a call for local leaders looking to grow businesses and promote economic opportunity in their communities. With high-speed connections running to more neighborhoods than ever, we must get a better feel for why certain groups subscribe less even when they have access to high broadband speeds. (Access to the internet via smartphones is certainly a factor.) Likewise, it’s incumbent on local cohorts to offer digital skills training and other social programs that can boost subscribership.

Getting more Americans online is a shared priority. But accomplishing it will take local solutions.

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Adie Tomer

Adie Tomer is a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and a member of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative. His work focuses on metropolitan infrastructure usage patterns, including personal and freight transportation and the intersections between infrastructure and technological development.

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