Wi-Fi and the Digital Divide

The Digital Divide is a topic for great discussion for the past decade or two, since computers and information systems have permeated our society and culture. Many people have proposed solutions, and many have helped address some of the Divide’s many components. It is spoken about often, and has been categorized and explained from many angles. Fundamentally, it refers to the chasm that exists in our society between the have’s and the have-not’s, and about the inability for the have-not’s to join the ranks of the have’s. It is, in part, a problem of economics.

So how does Wi-Fi fit in?

The Digital Divide, in part, can be solved by proper application of technology. Indeed, technology is the silver bullet for the Digital Divide that has been trumpeted by politicians and corporations alike. But in reality, it is more about the use of technology, and not the acquisition of it. This point is often confused by many who talk about the bridge that it can help form. Technology must be both affordable, to address economic problem, as well as assistive in its use in helping people better themselves.

A cheap computer is wonderful for fulfilling the first requirement, but fails the second since much of the assistance that is available to individuals is made available online. The fix, of course, is the internet, which has also been spoken of as the solution for the Digital Divide. The truth of the matter is that both computer and internet are needed, and that a broadband, always-on connection is essential.

We can assume that a computer costs $200, and that it is useful for 3 years (these are reasonable estimates). This means that a family can have that computer for about $5.50 per month, which is a reasonable cost burden for an underprivileged family as claimed by many politicians and technologists. (The truth is that many families get hand-me-down computers that can cost even less than this.) Internet access, however, is much more expensive. In New York, a DSL line from Verizon costs $30 per month, and in addition, a subscriber must also have a Verizon provided analog phone line which can cost at least $15. Time Warner Cable charges about $35 for its faster cable modem service, but this too requires a basic cable subscription, bringing the total cost to more than $50.

These prices are 6-7 times more expensive than that computer. These subscriptions cost $1000-$2000 over three years, not including taxes and other charges on top of the service fees, as well as normal subscription fee increases, which Time Warner seems to raise about once a year. These fees are in order to get a $200 computer online.

What makes anyone think that an underprivileged family that might be able to afford a $200 computer can also afford the $1000+ cost of internet access that makes that computer useful for bridging the Digital Divide?

Enter public Wi-Fi. I’m not talking about the T-mobile service you can get at Starbucks (because a coffee costs as much as the monthly payment on the computer) or the Wayport service you can get at a Hotel or Airport (since no one but active business travellers spend enough time in either place to make such services worthwhile). I’m talking about the free hotspots that NYCwireless helps provides in New York City’s parks, or the downtown areas of Urbana-Champaign, IL lit up by the CUWIN, downtown Boston lit up by NewburyOpen?.net, and Austin, TX lit up by Austin City Wireless community wireless organizations, or the countless other community wireless groups help to build across the country. Or even the low cost Wi-Fi network proposed by the city of Philadelphia.

These are the networks that can help bridge the Digital Divide. Finally that $200 computer can be used online for free or very cheap, and all families can participate in local politics and communities, and take advantage of the online assistance programs that are made available to them. These are innovative networks, and we need more of them. These networks prove that Community Wireless and Municipal Wireless should be embraced by everyone, especially the politicians who might be seeking to outlaw them. This is the future, and it is lives and is being created all around us, and everyone, politicians, corporations and individuals alike, should support them.

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