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Lacking Home Internet Access Hurts

Today, over 40% of Americans do not even have dial-up Internet access at home, and nearly one out of four does not use the Internet at all — even in public access areas such as libraries.

Most personal business is conducted in the home, such as searching for information, looking for a job, and catching up with friends and family. The 40% of Americans who do not have Internet access at home cannot capitalize on the Internet to make this personal business more efficient.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the Department of Commerce issued a report that, among other things, outlines the percentage of Americans who have high-speed Internet access at home compared to those using dial-up at home.  Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America commented on the NTIA report. CU and CFA found that the NTIA data show that: 

    1. Penetration of the Internet has slowed
    2. Low- and middle-class Americans continue to lack access to broadband Internet in the home
    3. Blacks and Hispanics are particularly vulnerable to the digital divide

Who Lacks Access

Those who lack home access are more likely to be minority, low-income, less-educated, elderly, from a Southern rural community, unemployed and disabled, according to research (PDF) by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Income appears to be the overriding factor in determining who gets the Internet.

A recent analysis by Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America discovered that while 80% of households with incomes above $50,000 a year have Internet access, less than half of families earning under $30,000 do.

The digital divide grows even wider when it comes to high-speed access. About half of households earning more than $75,000 have broadband, which allows much faster searching, downloading, video streaming — and allows for the newest technologies, such as making phone calls over the Internet.

Why is Broadband So Expensive

The average cost of broadband is $30 to $45 per month. That's in addition to the cost of cable or local phone service necessary to get broadband. There is little wonder why low-income Americans are left behind.

Nations such as Japan and Korea have opened up their basic networks that are the building blocks of broadband — cable and local phone systems — to providers who use those systems to compete for customers through lower prices. U.S. policies have resulted in a closed network, where the network owners decide who can use the network and at what price.

For more information on how the U.S. compares with other countries in broadband deployment, look at how Business Week Online and Information Week have covered these issues.

The Media Access Project provides an excellent overview of broadband policy issues and the importance of an open communications network. For a more technical analysis, see "The Public Interest in Open Communications Networks," a report from Dr. Mark Cooper of Consumer Federation of America.

What Can Be Done to Close the Gap

Policies that open up cable and phone lines to broadband competitors for reasonable fees will increase access to broadband. Also, communities across the country should not be prevented from creating and promoting less-expensive wireless technologies like WiFi, which do not rely on the use of a physical network, will help make access to the Internet cheaper and quicker.

While President Bush has stated a goal for America to have universal, affordable broadband by 2007, many useful government funding sources, like those from the Technology Opportunities Program have been eliminated from the federal budget. And community services, like Community Technology Centers which fund locally based technology education and telemedicine projects, have seen their funding cut.