The days of accessing the Internet with an AOL CD-ROM are long-gone yet connecting to the web for many American’s in rural and low-income communities has yet to come.
According to the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of people in America are not connected to the Internet at home.
Politicians, advocates, and technologists alike are taking initiatives to put policy and systems in place to bridge what is identified as the digital divide with programming, digital literacy workshops and free Broadband Internet services.
According to the FCC, 16 million people in do not have access to broadband Internet. Broadband is defined high-speed Internet access but for those living without it is hard to define let alone attain. Broadband includes several high-speed transmission technologies and is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access. The federal standard for broadband is 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream.
In New York alone, 36 percent of people living below the poverty line do not have Internet access at home. That means over 3 million New Yorkers are digitally disconnected.
While access to the Internet seems to be a social norm, as more social and educational services become available exclusively online more and more people a digital wedge is being placed in between the haves and have-nots.
After years of rallying for Internet equality by Internet advocates and community members, In July of 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the decision to invest $10 million in Broadband Internet access for 16,000 New Yorkers living in public housing and $200 million into a statewide effort to connected millions of people called LinkNYC.
The initiative is simple to explain, free gigabit Wi-Fi, but the technology behind the service is more technical than that. Dozens of touch screen kiosks have been popping up around New York City that looks like 9-foot display monitors with digital advertisements, USB outlets that are good for charging portable devices and a digital phone screen to make free phone calls.
William Colegrove, Senior Technologist and Director of Technology and Transparency for the Manhattan Borough Presidents office says that LinkNYC is a great resource but is it not the only solution to bridging the divide in New York City.
“Much of the focus is on free broadband initiatives so we have the LinkNYC network, which is providing a great service to the city. What we’re seeing is that we’re turning payphone infrastructure that no one was using into a 21st century amenity that brings free broadband Wi-Fi internet access to New Yorkers” said Colegrove
Tiffani Lopez, 19, a resident of East Harlem noticed the newly installed kiosk on East 116th Street and 3rd Avenue in front of Duane Reed drug store for the first time while coming out of the store.
“I didn’t know what this thing was but I appreciate it being in my neighborhood because I don’t have the Internet at home,” said Lopez.
New York has invested $200 million dollars into LinkNYC to benefit people like Lopez and others who want to connect to the web while exploring the city.
“I think it’s cool that I can come to this block and get on the Internet so that I don’t have to use all of my data,” said Lopez.
The goal of LinkNYC is to install over 500 Link kiosks throughout the five boroughs by July 2016. So far there are 92 active Links throughout Manhattan. 89 of them are located along the East side starting at 14th up to 116th Street with three located on the upper west side.
While LinkNYC is a resource to the community it is also an advertising model.
“LinkNYC is a major part of New York City’s plan to close the digital divide by providing fast, free Wi-Fi as no cost to taxpayers. The Link tablets and future public gigabit centers also provide an access point for those without home Internet service to use the web. And by generating over $500 million in revenue for the City, LinkNYC can help fund other city digital divide initiatives, like providing free Wi-Fi in public housing,” said CJ Macklin of Berlin Rosen Public Relations who is communications associate working on the LinkNYC team.
“Because it is an advertising model the priorities of the franchisee is to place these kiosks in areas that are going to have a high advertising revenue. So, surprise, surprise-that’s in Midtown and lower Manhattan where we don’t have the same needs in terms of Internet access,” explained Colegrove.
While Colegrove thinks the LinkNYC is a step in the right direction in the case of these kiosks location is everything.
“The kiosks are on the streets so that’s really not going to be really getting into your bedroom unless you’re sort of perfectly situated. Honestly, it is just an amenity for a short-term thing.”
The digital divide impacts people of all backgrounds nationally and internationally.
Just a few hours away in Baltimore, Maryland, Bernie Smith founder of E-Club Digital Project, advocates to end what he calls the “digital apartheid” by providing community trainings, online resources and through partnering with other advocates.
Smith says the divide goes beyond race and demographics and for members of his community it is also a tech literacy issue.
“It’s more than the digital divide. We’ve got a literacy problem where people don’t know how to use the computers. Older people don’t even know where to start,” said Smith.
For the past 10 years Smith has been advocating to close the digital divide and in 2013 launched his website eclubdigitalproject.com.
Smith says that partnering with other organizations has been key because of how many people are impacted.
“I work with the Boys and Girl Club, United Way and the recreation centers in Baltimore. I am also trying to come up with a computer sharing program where people can have access to computers,” said Smith.
For many low-income American’s not having access to computers makes connecting to the Internet more difficult because mobile-only access becomes too expensive due of data overages.
Smith says that everyday things like paying bills and applying for jobs is challenging for those who are digitally illiterate.
“A person in Baltimore that’s low-income has to keep kicking out two dollars every time they pay a bill,” said smith.
Here are three things Smith says impact people in his community:
- People cannot seek employment online
- Students cannot do their homework at home
- People are not connected to what is happening around the world
“Everything is moving online and it’s taking away from everyday life for a lot of people. Most poor people spend their money on housing and after eating, gas and utilities it’s nearly impossible to afford the Internet,” said Smith.
In a recent article, Charlotte Residents Shouldn’t Have to Buy a Burger for Wi-Fi, covering the divide by Sherrell Dorsey, she breaks down the cost of being disconnected for North Carolina residents who dine at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s to connect to the Internet.
For many, the alternative to “fast food connections” is to connect at the public library.
Jeremiah Rushing, 23, sophomore sociology major at City College of San Francisco, says that the public library is his hot spot for accessing the Internet. Rushing is someone who would be classified as a mobile-only user being that he does not have broadband Internet access where he lives.
“I go to the public library every day because they have the Internet and study rooms. It’s hard trying to type a paper on my phone. I’ve tried doing it on the train but it’s really distracting because there are a lot of ads that pop up,” said rushing.
For students across the nation public libraries are an access point for the Internet and digital literacy workshops. In New York City alone there are 92 Libraries throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.
“We serve a vast and diverse population and each of our branches offers programs and services that help and support local communities. As centers for education and learning, NYPL has made a commitment to provide our users with the resources they need to succeed in New York City,” said Amy Geduldig, Senior Publicist for the New York Public Library.
“I don’t know what I would do”, responded Rushing when asked what would he do if could not access wireless Internet at the library.
“In regard to technology this includes our most recent pilot program – the Library Hotspot, which are Wi-Fi devices that are checked out like a Library book and enables users to access the Internet at home; workshops on technology for the beginner (Basic computer operation) to the more advanced (Coding classes); offering desktop computers and/or laptops for patron use for those who are not able to access a computer at home; free Wi-Fi at all Library locations for those who may not be able to access the internet at home,” said Geduldig.
“It’s super important that working with people at the public library and talking to institutions around the city and community groups…we have to make an effort to develop programming and infrastructure around these kiosks. There is great potential to connect folks with access to computer and other sorts of digital literacy to help bridge the digital divide but it’s going to take the efforts of working with stakeholders across the city to make this possible,” Colegrove emphasized.
Although thousands are people are connecting to the Internet for free in the city there are thousands who still are not.
“This [LinkNYC] is not a silver bullet but I think shows that the city is committed to this effort and I think it’s a really good thing that secured franchises are providing a service at no cost to tax payers…so hopefully it’ll be something that we consider in our future franchise deals,” said Colegrove.