The Digital Divide, Part II

Carl Weinschenk

The original definition of the digital divide, which was heard a decade or so ago, was the gulf between people who had online access and those who didn't.


The definition has gradually changed. The new digital divide is a bit more subtle -- but just as troublesome. Indeed, the reality is that if regulators don't play their cards right, the impact could be worse than the digital divide as it originally was defined.


That sounds counterintuitive. After all, how could the divide be worse in the future when the initial definition focused on folks who had no connectivity at all? The reason is that the Internet now is more central to the lives of Americans. To have slow broadband going forward will be a huge liability because so much of our private and professional lives are lived on the Net.


That makes the first paragraph of a press release Gartner issued last week particularly troubling:


Ultra-high-speed residential broadband will create a bandwidth divide that will emerge in the next three to five years in which urbanized areas will benefit from increased download speeds while rural and less-populated areas will not, according to Gartner, Inc.


Though the release went in another direction, the initial statement is ominous. Yesterday, I blogged about the cumulative importance of the small battles that will shape the ground rules for the allocation of broadband stimulus money in the near term and, in the bigger picture, the overall future of broadband in the U.S.


Gartner, apparently, thinks it sees where this all is going. The organization, at least according to this release, thinks the dichotomy between rural and urban that was set in the 1990s will continue and accelerate as the speed differences between run-of-the-mill and state-of-the-art technologies become greater.


It may indeed turn out this way. It also is possible that the disparity won't be as pronounced and, indeed, online speeds in the city and country will tend to converge.


First, it's fair to note that it is a bit of a straw man argument. It's simplistic to compare rural and urban broadband. Broadband speeds are, and always have been, highly variable within each setting.


It's also important to acknowledge that rural telcos and cooperatives have a good track record of creating fast platforms, though they generally lack the bucks to get the word out. Coupled with stimulus and associated funding, these firms may be able to more effectively spread their innovations in areas with low population densities.


Finally, the commercialization of 4G promises to bring more bandwidth to the hinterlands.


Tying it all together is the fact that rural local, county, state and regional governments -- as well as the feds -- see the importance of healthy broadband for rural areas. So does the business community. The governments are driven by the desire to keep residents from moving -- amd taking their tax dollars with them. For business, the desire is to expand the workforce, which increasingly is online.


There never will be complete consistency between the broadband experiences everywhere. Going forward, however, there is reason to believe that the differences between urban and rural broadband speeds will not be as extreme as some predict.

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