Broadband bridges the urban divide

Making the case for improved broadband access often turns the spotlight on America’s more rural areas. But a closer look at the numbers also shows that there’s another subset of the population desperately in need of better broadband access that’s actually much closer to home: The urban pockets found in major metropolitan cities like Milwaukee.

Last week, a new program called "We Are Now Connected Project" was unveiled at a Milwaukee Housing Authority apartment building for seniors and the disabled. This project is now providing free access to broadband service for 180 residents of the Riverview housing facility on Milwaukee’s east side.

In addition to now having access to free broadband, Riverview residents have access to a year of technical assistance. Plans are also in the works to provide residents with low and/or no-cost refurbished computers.

The project is headed by nonprofit One Economy with assistance from AT&T. Funding for this initiative is being provided in part through an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant with a corporate match.

The Riverview residents represent one of those urban pockets without the broadband access that many of us now take for granted. But when you look at the statistics, it sheds light on why urban initiatives to increase broadband access are just as important as those targeting expanded access in less-populated, rural areas.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an April 2009 tracking survey showed that 56 percent of adults access the Internet through wireless means and the most prevalent on-ramp is a laptop computer. Yet, this same report showed that one in five American adults have never used the Internet or email and do not live in an Internet-connected household.

Whom did the study show that these people tended to be? Americans age 65 and older, African Americans and those with less education. Nationally, 54 percent of African-American households and 60 percent of Latino households currently do not have in-house broadband access.

But that doesn’t mean a disinterest in using the Internet. Though less than half of African-American households have access, this is a demographic group that clearly has an online presence. African Americans are the most active users of mobile Internet services via their cellular phones: 48 percent of African Americans use mobile internet compared with a national average of 32 percent. Their usage is also growing the fastest among demographic groups.

Why is this access so important? Many critical tasks now can only be done digitally, from submitting resumes to sending in applications to colleges and universities. Tasks such as banking and bill paying can also be regularly completed online. Online education programs are proliferating, but without high-speed access, it’s impossible to participate in them.

The vast majority of underserved residents of urban population centers are also split demographically. According to One Economy, only 21 percent of people earning less than $30,000 a year have broadband access; three times as many affluent households have high-speed Internet access.

The need for affordable, statewide broadband access is clear. We have moved rapidly into a world where having reliable broadband Internet access is a practical necessity to carry on the tasks of daily life.

Small-scale initiatives like the “We Are Now Connected Project” are important in reaching overlooked populations – both rural and urban – in helping affordable, accessible broadband access become a reality for the entire state of Wisconsin.

 

Thad Nation is the executive director of Wired Wisconsin, the Wisconsin-based project of Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition (MCCC), a nonprofit organization of individual consumers interested in technology, broadband, and telecommunication issues with state projects throughout the Midwest region.

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