Thinking Past the Digital Divide

As the federal government and corporations work steadily to open up broadband access to all, other modes of access may be readily available at lower cost and faster implementation, with a potentially high impact in the short term.


This article was co-written with Julia Ticona.

Mike was 15 minutes late for an interview and not answering texts or phone calls. Julia was just about ready to write him off when he burst through the door of the Dunkin Donuts where they had agreed to meet, full of apologies. He sat down and as he put his phone on the table it began beeping and vibrating. Mike said that after spending over $100—the equivalent of 10 hours’ pay—on a new phone that had ended up in a snowbank, he was forced to purchase yet another phone. Because of the extra cost, however, he wasn’t able to keep up with payments to the phone company. Julia was confused. If his phone service was disconnected, why was it buzzing with notifications? Mike explained that he was using a free app to make and receive calls with the free wifi he accessed at fast food joints around the city, including this Dunkin Donuts.

Mike has two part-time jobs, one in a medical supplies warehouse, and another as a day laborer for a home repairs business, both of which require him to commute for over an hour from where he lives in Maryland. For both jobs, his bosses call to check his availability, often only a few hours in advance. With his lack of consistent phone service this poses a logistical challenge and has led to his habit of spending days off hanging out at local restaurants with free wifi. He’ll head to the McDonald’s down the street from his house to make calls and check Craigslist to find work. The patchwork of part-time work and low-paid gigs that Mike relies on for his income is increasingly common for high school-educated minorities.

Every day, Mike engages in what Julia calls the “digital hustle”: finding and securing this work requires participation in online networks and the ability to make and receive phone calls. His inability to maintain enough income to foot the bill for cell phone service every month has created a constraint that required him to find other resources.

By many measures, someone like Mike might be considered unconnected to the internet. He has no internet or computer at home, and though he has a smartphone, he has no data or phone plan. And yet his very ability to sustain his livelihood depends on his ability to find and maintain connectivity, using apps and free wifi networks that create the phone connection he needs.

~~~

New policies aiming to bring greater connectivity to people in low-income urban and rural areas have garnered political support as more public attention is drawn to closing the digital divide in the United States. This includes ConnectHome, a recently-announced White House initiative that plans to connect 275,000 homes with free or low-cost broadband access, with the goal of complementing ConnectEd, which brings universal broadband to schools. In addition, the FCC is advocating an expansion of the Lifeline program, which currently provides subsidies for landline and mobile phone access, to give recipients of this subsidy the opportunity to choose to spend their $9.25 per month to defray the costs of either broadband, landline, or mobile phone plans.

The digital divide, as explored in a recent White House report, often correlates with existing inequalities:

The benefits of this technological revolution, however, have not been evenly distributed. Millions of Americans still do not regularly use a computer, and research shows that there remain substantial disparities in both internet use and the quality of access. This “digital divide” is concentrated among older, less educated, and less affluent populations, as well as in rural parts of the country that tend to have fewer choices and slower connections.

The paper notes that the digital divide can be measured along a number of axes—ability to access broadband internet at home (whether landline or wireless), quality of said access, and diversity of broadband offerings. And due to the technological and infrastructural requirements of providing broadband vis-à-vis a lack of alternative options, rural areas often experience especially pronounced effects.

Unfortunately, however, due to the enormous logistical costs, there are 55 million people in the United States without broadband access; expanding broadband to 275,000 of them will “barely put a dent,” as Micah Sifry wrote recently. Neither ConnectHome nor the new Lifeline program address the considerable costs of ensuring sustainable maintenance, which may be a larger barrier to low-income people fully engaging online. The enormous logistical efforts of providing such access means that that goal may be many years off. Importantly, these efforts also assume a largely stable, singular primary residence, which isn’t the reality for many low-income families, who face rising rates of housing insecurity.

The implicit logic behind these plans, and much rhetoric surrounding the digital divide, is a basic connectivity binary: between an urban, middle-class vision of always-on broadband access in a stable home and, by contrast, a complete lack of connectivity. Even accounting for the nuance of the White House report, which measures the digital divide in a number of different ways, popular thinking largely focuses on one mode: broadband at home. Many other forms for access such as Mike’s, above, are rendered invisible.

While the goal to connect all citizens via broadband is a critical one, limiting ourselves to binary thinking about connectivity can have unintended consequences. Policy and outreach efforts run the risk of ignoring the many vital ways people already access the web and its products in the United States, while civic-oriented websites and apps may not be optimized for modes of access that are more diverse than simply always-on mobile and desktop. As the federal government and corporations work steadily to open up broadband access to all, other modes of access may be readily available at lower cost and faster implementation, with a potentially high impact in the short term.

~~~

What can more diversified thinking about connectivity look like? Our goal here is not to argue for specific policy changes and technological methods, but instead to argue for a seeing connectivity as more of a spectrum than a binary.

Consider an extreme example outside the United States: in recent years, Cubans have had little to no access to the internet, with an elite 5 percent of the country’s 11 million people having private internet connections. Nevertheless, many Cubans have found different ways to access popular internet content thanks to distributed USB sticks in a sneakernet-based system. El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), a popular sneakernet magazine, directly services 10-20 people per day, and those people in turn make copies for friends and family. As An has written previously, this sort of access extends to North Korea and northern Uganda, and almost certainly to other parts of the world where the infrastructure for any form of wired or wireless internet access is almost nonexistent.

In the United States, we might consider looking at Connect 4 Life’s project to give smartphones to homeless LGBTQ teens. These teens are overrepresented among the homeless youth population in the U.S. and programs like this aim to give them access to the tools necessary to contact caseworkers, find friendly shelters and meal programs, and look for work. These teens, for whom connectivity is essential to avoiding involvement with criminal activities, finding help, and eventually getting into more stable housing, would be untouched by efforts to expand home-based broadband access.

These examples point at different ways to broaden our thinking about infrastructure, but software developers can also play an important role in ensure websites and apps can support individuals with a variety of different types of connectivity. Take, for instance, the simple affordances of Instapaper and Pocket, apps that allow for offline reading of popular articles. How else can we provide queued, offline access for those who might only have intermittent access at libraries, cafes, and fast food restaurants? Can content be more readily downloadable, El Paquete-style, to USB sticks and mobile phones, for consumption at home?

Consider as well that many civic technology sites are oriented to web access and/or phone services. The Lifeline program in the United States currently offers phone plan subsidies, and while voicemail-based services can be important, SMS in certain contexts may be more cost effective and preferred. The most popular example of SMS-based systems in this country are probably for telling bus arrival times, but could developers learn from SMS-based systems such as those explored by Twitter, Google, and UNICEF in the developing world?

~~~

To be clear, the initiatives we’ve described above cannot and should not be seen as replacements for full broadband, networked access at home and on the go. As President Obama is quoted in the White House paper, “Today high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” Advocating for the expansion of Lifeline to support broadband, Van Jones noted the same:

What about a life without broadband Internet?

It would mean: no emails; no ability to quickly look up health information for managing your diabetes or helping your sick child; no way to pay bills, search for jobs, or take classes online.

When you stop to think about it, one thing becomes clear: access to fast and reliable broadband is just as essential now as electricity was during the last century.

As we’ve seen in recent years, the internet has played a major role in a broad range of major social and political changes, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the digitization of our healthcare system. Home and mobile broadband access has allowed the authors of this article to collaborate remotely, share research and disseminate this article efficiently and effectively. What is currently a mark of privilege should be available to all U.S. residents.

Broadening how we think about access can mean assembling a more diverse toolkit of connectivity that is more cost effective and quicker to implement in the short term. Whether that’s through sneakernet-driven networks, citywide wifi, distributed smartphones, SMS-based communications or many other modes and methods of connectivity, we should aim to provide a wider range of individuals access to the internet, an absolute necessity for 21st century livelihoods and citizenship.

Julia Ticona (@juliaticona1) is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia and a graduate of Wellesley College. She’s currently a doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Her dissertation examines the inequalities that shape the problems of everyday personal information and communication technology use. You can find her at juliaticona.com.