Feeling Access Pains

[Commentary] While we don’t usually think of cities as lacking broadband services, what they often lack is affordable broadband. Go to a local library in a city and you often see waiting lists for using their computers, or you see many people with their own devices using library-provided Wi-Fi. The New York Public Library program was prompted, in part, by a New York Mayor’s Office 2015 report noting that 36 percent of the city’s households with incomes below the poverty line lacked home Internet service. We know a lot of people have abandoned high priced cable or telephone company-provided Internet plans and just use their mobile phones to access the Internet, but those plans, too, are expensive and typically have data caps. The library patrons we spoke with were clever with work-arounds, but the bottom line was that not having an Internet connection that allows you to work with files, to work for longer periods of time, to work in a comfortable place where you can concentrate, impairs many routine activities. For kids in schools that assume students have easy Internet access, there is real jeopardy they will not be able to participate. Library-based hotspot programs may be a useful, if temporary, solution to access for people who lack the ability to subscribe to broadband services. Our work is ongoing. In addition to New York/Queens/Brooklyn Public Libraries, we are looking at some rural libraries in Kansas and Maine that are also lending hotspots. Affordability is a common refrain both in rural and urban regions. There are some other dynamics in rural areas that complicate the picture, and we will share some of those observations later on. But the fundamental questions have to do with the status of this essential infrastructure in America. Why do we have the highest prices around the world for gaining access? Why so much less high-capacity service (like fiber) compared to many other industrialized countries? What is the role for wireless services filling in where wired infrastructure is either unaffordable or unavailable? And where do libraries fit in our broadband plans?

[Sharon Strover is a Professor in Communication and former Chair of the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas where she now directs the Technology and Information Policy Institute.]


Feeling Access Pains