During the 2000 presidential campaign, it was fashionable to talk in terms of a "digital divide" in the USA separating the technology haves from the technology have-nots. Those fears turned out to be unrealized. After all, with Internet penetration rates now close to 75% in the USA, it is overstating matters to say that any kind of digital divide exists. People from all economic backgrounds are now able to access the Internet from home, work, school, libraries and on a variety of mobile devices. However, it is not only the level of Internet penetration that matters -- it is also the quality. By nearly any benchmark, the USA continues to lag behind the nations of Asia-Pacific in terms of broadband Internet access, meaning that millions of Americans are missing out on always-on, high-speed Internet connections.
The latest hint of a new digital divide separating broadband Internet users from dialup Internet users comes from the "Ten Years, Ten Trends" report published by the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future in late September. Each year for the past ten years, the Center for the Digital Future has measured the impact of the Internet on everyday American life. After analyzing the latest data and more than 100 major issues, the Center identified the #1 trend in online behavior:
"In America, the digital divide is closing, but is not yet closed as new divides emerge... A new divide is coming that will bring with it a new set of ramifications: the divide between those who have broadband and those who use traditional telephone modem access."
Approximately 64 million Americans now have access to broadband Internet connections and roughly 40% of all online U.S. households use high-speed, always-on connections to access the Internet. In cities like San Diego and Phoenix, these numbers are dramatically higher -- nearly 70% of households located in these cities have broadband Internet access, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. Certainly not a bad start, but what about rural communities across America that are missing out on the next stage in the ongoing build-out of the Internet?
To put these numbers into perspective, consider that in South Korea, 75% of citizens enjoy broadband Internet access. In fact, Fortune magazine's Peter Lewis has called South Korea a "broadband wonderland," concluding that South Korea is using broadband Internet access to get a leg up on its competitors in Europe and North America and thereby transform itself into the next great power of the Internet era. By some accounts, broadband Internet access is so plentiful in South Korea that it is almost a basic utility like water or electricity.
In addition to South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are also emphasizing the importance of universal broadband Internet access as a competitive weapon. In fact, the research firm Research and Markets now estimates that there will be 56.6 million broadband households in Asia-Pacific by the end of 2004, compared to only 37.7 million in North America and 28.7 million in Western Europe. Either by per capita penetration rate or absolute numbers, then, the USA is starting to lag other nations in terms of broadband connectivity.
Make no mistake about it, access to high-speed, always-on connections matters. After all, even casual technology users know that the types of activities favored by broadband and dialup users tend to vary greatly. Broadband users are more likely to take advantage of bandwidth-intensive applications such as video and music-on-demand, multi-player online games, online shopping and e-learning. When broadband Internet connectivity becomes a basic utility, it is only natural that online behavior changes.
For example, a recent Yahoo Internet Deprivation Study showed that broadband Internet users are more adept at using the Internet to create social networks using tools such as instant messaging. Unhindered by painfully slow Internet connections, these users, according to Yahoo, are able to "overcome time and distance and to manage communications with a larger social circle, thereby creating an effortless community." Instead of becoming less social with increasing Internet usage, users actually become more social.
Simply stated, broadband Internet access enables new types of activities and a richer set of opportunities for information-seekers and relationship-builders. Consider the potential impact on rural American communities of enhanced broadband connectivity -- residents of these communities would be able to telecommute to jobs located in urban communities, buy and sell local products and services in new geographic locales, and improve their access to e-learning resources and government services.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that both presidential candidates have mentioned the need for universal broadband Internet access in their campaign speeches. In April, for example, President Bush emphasized that "every corner of the United States" should be equipped with high-speed Internet connections by 2007 -- and followed that up with a set of recommendations for federal agencies and regulators. Since then, however, the subject has faded from the headlines. At a time when nations such as South Korea have made broadband connectivity a key strategic plank of their technological future, though, the USA can not forget about the need to close the growing "digital divide" between the broadband haves and the dial-up have-nots.
The author is a TCS contributor.