Government must pay to eliminate digital divide

Smart Communities helps low-income communities increase broadband use, says Karen Mossberger, head of public administration. “Living in a high-poverty neighborhood magnifies the gaps,” she says.

Low-income city residents learn to use broadband through public programs, but they will not get home broadband until it costs less — and government must help make that happen, says a UIC professor who will speak Thursday at a Federal Communications Commission summit in Washington, D.C.

The FCC summit will focus on ways to close the “digital divide” that keeps low-income households, minorities, seniors, people with disabilities, and residents of rural areas and tribal lands from fully using the Internet.

Representatives of these groups and the country’s largest broadband providers, government agencies and academia will meet at the summit.

Karen Mossberger, head of public administration, will discuss Smart Communities, a Chicago program to increase broadband use in five low-income communities.

Mossberger, co-author of several books on the digital divide, studied the city’s program under a grant from Partnership for a Connected Illinois, working with Caroline Tolbert of the University of Iowa.

“Neighborhoods in Smart Communities had a 15 percent greater increase in Internet use from 2008 to 2011 than other Chicago community areas, but that didn’t encourage significant increases in home broadband, given the cost,” Mossberger said.

“Cost is a major challenge in low-income communities and has not been addressed sufficiently by policy.”

Mossberger urges greater competition and policies similar to the Universal Service Fund, a subsidy program that makes telephone service affordable around the country.

Smartphones are not closing the digital divide because people who use the phones exclusively do fewer activities online and have lower levels of Internet skill, she said.

Home broadband customers use the Internet for health care, jobs, education and government services.

Home broadband is necessary for “digital citizenship” — full participation in society, as information and services increasingly move online, Mossberger said.

“Social inequality, the cost of broadband and the need for skills account for the gaps in broadband adoption in both urban and rural areas,” she said. “And our data show that in urban areas, living in a high-poverty neighborhood magnifies the gaps.”

Mossberger will present a policy brief signed by researchers from universities across the country on the need to evaluate more broadband programs.

She will also discuss findings from her new book, Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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