by Megan Tady
- USA -
Connie Toops would be content photographing birds all day long. In fact, she’s made a business of it, working as a professional freelance nature photographer. Her office could be her backyard – she moved to the mountains of western North Carolina just to be closer to her subjects.
Connie’s work has appeared in magazines like Orion, and she’s even published her own book of photography. Yet these days, business is slow, and it’s not because the birds aren’t chirping – it’s because her Internet connection is crawling.
The town of Marshall where Connie lives sits on a small slip of land between the wide French Broad River and the towering face of a mountain. With its railroad tracks, its 19th century court house, its cloud-popping church steeple, and its small population of over 800 people, Marshall looks like a model town for miniature train sets.
But beautiful views aren’t going to sell Connie’s photos if she can’t get them in the hands of publishers. Although Marshall is just 20 miles from more bustling Asheville, many residents of the town can only get a slow dial-up connection or pricey, unreliable satellite Internet. Phone and cable companies have marked Marshall – like many other remote and rural areas in the U.S. – too difficult and expensive to service with broadband, or high-speed Internet.
“The dial-up was adequate at first, but that was seven or eight years ago,” Connie says. “Now with my job things have really speeded up as far as how people are expected to submit photography over the Internet. It requires a much faster connection and we just haven’t kept pace.”
Connie isn’t struggling alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of the population in the U.S. – both in rural and urban areas – does not have a high-speed Internet connection at a time when almost everything is done online – from applying for jobs to taking online classes to participating in movements for social change.
The Barriers to Broadband
High-speed Internet is one of the most transformative technologies in human history. In little more than a decade, broadband has completely changed how people do business, engage with government, teach children, and interact with one another and the rest of the world.
But not everyone is able to take advantage of this technology. The U.S. is suffering from a “digital divide,” where tens of millions of people can’t get online for reasons of class, location, race and ethnicity.
Only 35 percent of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have broadband, while 76 percent of homes earning more than $50,000 per year are connected, according to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau.
Like Connie, nearly 20 million Americans live in places that are not served by a single broadband provider. And the digital divide has an ugly race component: only 40 percent of ethnic minority households subscribe to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.
These stunning numbers don’t take into account the other barriers to access – many people simply can’t afford a computer or don’t have the skills to use the technology.
“With those variables, that means that there’s a huge population of people who don’t have [Internet] access who won’t be able to engage in our society as a whole,” says Shireen Mitchell, executive director of Digital Sisters/Sistas Inc., an organization that works to bridge the digital divide in underserved communities.
The Benefits of Broadband
Attempting to upload high-resolution photos using a dial-up connection is like making water boil using the flame from a lighter – laughable if it weren’t so frustrating.
“It’s impossible to send out more than a megabyte at once and that’s not large enough for a photo to [be used] in a book or a magazine,” Connie says. “If I’m going to be posting more than several megabytes it’s actually quicker for me to drive the half hour into town to go to the library, post for 10 minutes and drive home, than it would be to sit for two hours at home trying to post those same images.”
Sahil Sinha, whose organization INO Solutions works to bridge the digital divide in urban Washington, D.C., sees the Internet as a revolutionary tool to revive local economies, create unprecedented opportunity, and give overlooked communities a voice. The unemployment rate was 9.3 percent in D.C. in January.
“[The Internet] connects people,” he says, “and that’s one of the major functions of any business, being able to connect and get one product from one person to the people who need it.”
As the nation’s economy falters, many people see widespread broadband as the necessary spark to revive the economy.
A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution and MIT estimated that a one-digit increase in U.S. per-capita broadband penetration equates to an additional 300,000 jobs. If our broadband penetration were as high as a country like Denmark’s, we could expect approximately 3.7 million additional U.S. jobs.
Bringing Broadband to the People
In D.C., Kimberly Bryant spends many hours of the week camped out in the public library while her children wait for a free computer. She recently had to cancel her family’s high-speed Internet service after her husband was laid off.
“When you look at our budget on a limited income … the rent, the food, things like that have to get [paid],” she says.
Like other parents across the nation, Kimberly worries that her kids are paying the price. “[The Internet] is very important for our children,” she says. “We chose to make this into a technology world, yet we’re not allowing our kids to have the access that we created.”
But Kimberly may be in luck. President Obama has acknowledged the importance of broadband for education and our economy. In February, Obama and Congress passed the $787 billion “American Recovery & Reinvestment Act,” which includes $7.2 billion for broadband expansion across the country—meaning people like Kimberly and Connie could finally be brought into the high-speed digital age.
Currently, there are three federal agencies that are determining how to spend the money. And while this allocation is an important first step, it’s simply just one piece of a larger puzzle to connect the entire country.
Equating broadband expansion to other government infrastructure projects, Sahil wants to see even more government investment: “We need our roads, and we need our information superhighway,” he says.
And in the tiny town of Marshall, Connie simply doesn’t want to be forgotten.
“So many people seem to have fast access now that I think once you get it you sort of forget that there are still people struggling along with the telephone line stretched over the turnip patch,” she says. “There’s some of us that have been left out and if there’s something…that would bring broadband to the rural areas I say that’s something that we really ought to [fight] for.”
Megan’s article is part of our focus on Technology & Innovation. – Ed.
About the Author
Megan Tady is a blogger and campaign coordinator for the national, non-profit media reform organization Free Press (www.freepress.net). Megan has traveled across the country interviewing people who struggle to live and work without high-speed Internet access.