In an effort to get around the costs and challenges of fiber-based internet access, a new type of access is being explored: the outernet. “By leveraging datacasting technology over a low-cost satellite constellation, Outernet is able to bypass censorship, ensure privacy, and offer a universally-accessible information service at no cost to global cities. It’s the modern version of shortwave radio, or BitTorrent from space” notes outernet.org. “The primary objective of Outernet is to bridge the global information divide,” the website announces. “There are more computing devices in the world than people, yet less than 40% of the global population has access to the wealth of knowledge found on the Internet. The price of smartphones and tablets is dropping year after year, but the price of data in many parts of the world continues to be unaffordable for the majority of global citizens. In some places, such as rural areas and remote regions, cell towers and Internet cables simply don’t exist.” An interesting idea, but issues of privacy, censorship, access, and viability have yet to be resolved.
Economic issues have rarely been solved by technology alone and, in fact, have often been exacerbated by technology. Today, Berkeley researchers report that the income inequality gap is the highest it has been in the U.S. since before the Great Depression. Many people—too many people—in the U.S. and the world still do not have access to the internet.
Last August, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that 70% of Americans now have broadband access at home. However, despite this huge growth, problems of access persist. In another Pew report, the digital divide was more clear: While 88% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000-plus have broadband, only 54% of those households with annual incomes less than $30,000 do. Broadband is available in 74% of white households, but only 64% and 53% of African-American and Hispanic homes, respectively. Additionally, 20% of Americans, more than 63 million people, have neither home broadband nor a smartphone. With a poverty rate of approximately 15%, the digital divide is still lingering beyond the issue of income/wealth.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that 59% of U.S. seniors go online, compared to 86% for the total adult population. Nearly half of all seniors in the survey have broadband access at home, which is the same percentage for adults as a whole. Income and education were significant factors in internet usage. DigitalDivide.org notes that “‘Closing the Digital Divide’ therefore means more than just giving the poor the same technologies already received by the rich. Closing the Divide involves restructuring the telecommunications sectors in each nation so that broadband’s benefits can flow to the masses, not just the elite urban sectors of emerging markets.” How can we finally achieve this? “The new view is that closing the digital divide will be most effective if governments and businesses work together to change the incentives that shape digital markets. They could team up on new strategic alliances, funded by public-private partnerships for rural health care, quality education, etc. By so doing, the ‘digital have-nots’ may be able to reap many of the same benefits as the wealthy.”
Libraries and Information Professionals Take Center Stage
The key role of libraries and information professionals in all of this was clear in the recent IMLS hearing. Libraries have been tracking needs and changes for years now. The “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study” has worked to assess “public access to computers, the Internet and Internet-related services in U.S. public libraries, as well as the impact of library funding changes on connectivity, technology deployment and sustainability.” The recent Digital Inclusion Survey from the University of Maryland, another effort to “analyze current data as a means of forecasting the future needs of a community or an organization … [as] a major tool utilized by libraries across the country,” was released earlier this year. Ongoing efforts to lead “a broad effort to guide libraries and librarians through a process of transformation” are reflected in the 2014 edition of the ALA’s annual “State of America’s Libraries” report.
“As a history buff,” Wheeler concluded at the IMLS hearing, “I’ve always been interested in the role that Andrew Carnegie played in the library history of America. And one of the things that everybody thinks of when you hear the name Andrew Carnegie is steel. Andrew Carnegie was first a network guy. So it’s appropriate that we’re talking about libraries, about Carnegie’s contribution in making libraries what they were in the 19th century, and we come back to networks. We’re moving from supporting 20th-century technology to 21st-century high-speed broadband technology. Andrew Carnegie built 2,500 libraries in a public-private partnership in the 19th century. He defined information access for millions and millions of people for over a century. We stand on the precipice of being able to have the same kind of seminal impact on the flow of information and ideas the 21st century.”
However, the goal of providing truly universal access to the internet at speeds required by the evolving internet-based economy is clearly still at risk. Congress remains gridlocked and, with the courts requiring a two-tiered option for internet access, our work is clearly not done. Accolades and good intentions—as represented in the IMLS hearing—are important, but clearly there is a major battle looming over the future of what the internet will become.