October 04, 2012
By Aswad Walker
Special to the NNPA from The Houston Defender
When the digital divide was first introduced as a concept in the 1990s, it referred to a gap between those who had access to computers and the Internet and those who did not. There were concerns that minorities and low-income Americans were being left behind in cyberspace, while wealthier and predominantly White Americans flourished.
These days, the old digital divide – mere access to the worldwide Web – has somewhat closed. The new digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots is now high-speed Internet access versus restricted wireless access. With each passing day, urban and suburban-dwelling, upper-income households enjoy high-speed Internet access while the poor and working class can only afford a much slower level of access that in turn limits access to critical quality of life factors.
The recent emergence of online education, video-on-demand, and Internet-ordered medicine requiring reliable, high-speed connections, has meant many Americans don’t earn enough to acquire those services – creating a virtual apartheid.
“When we talk about the Internet we often don’t realize that today, we’re really talking about two Internets – separate and unequal,” said Joyce Johnson, a technology professional with more than 20 years of experience. “Racial, geographic and income factors create a very real dividing line between those who can enjoy the amenities of high-speed access and those left with their noses pressed against the proverbial window, on the outside looking in.”
Just more than 200 million Americans have high-speed, wired Internet access at home. Millions, however, are still completely offline, while others can only afford Web access via phone lines or wireless smartphones that don’t allow for the full complement of online offerings.
The result – technology have-nots can expect lower-quality health services, career opportunities, education and entertainment options than they already receive if something is not done immediately to bridge the divide.
Statistics tell the story of the new digital divide:
•According to the Department of Commerce, only four out of every 10 households with annual household incomes below $25,000 in 2010 reported having wired Internet access at home, compared with the vast majority — 93 percent — of households with incomes exceeding $100,000.
•Only slightly more than half of all Black and Latino households have wired Internet access at home, compared with 72 percent of Whites.
•According to a 2010 Pew Poll, 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of African-Americans use their cell phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of White Americans. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of African-Americans use their phones for e-mail, compared with 30 percent of White Americans.
Onimi Wilcox, associate dean of Prairie View A&M University’s College of Arts and Sciences, acknowledges that the divide has been closed some, especially for Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) and women, but believes more needs to be done if today’s technology poor will enjoy 21st century success.
“It’s essential that everybody is at least on the same playing field,” Wilcox said. “If not, we can’t understand what is going on in various fields which affects access to jobs, college applications, online classes, and global knowledge. Without the skills, infrastructure, and access we need, we’re being left behind. This does not just impact minorities, it impacts the future,” said Wilcox.
Johnson is also concerned about the future.
“I’m not being over-dramatic when I say if we don’t bridge this digital divide we are consigning our communities to death – if not physical death, the death of opportunity; the death of critical exposures to new ideas; the death of potential and possibilities,” Johnson said.
Social forecasters are predicting that within a decade, people will be able to speak with their doctors online thus accessing lower-cost, higher-quality care, and monitor their energy use via smart-grid technology to keep costs down.
Presently, thousands are earning high school and college degrees via virtual classrooms thanks to high-speed connections.
Cognizant of these realities, the 2012 National Urban League Annual Conference addressed the issue of increasing broadband adoption in Black communities.
“I say without hesitation today, that broadband is the great equalizer,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who spoke at the conference. “People should not have to choose between feeding their families and paying for the transformational benefits of broadband,” she added.
Johnson sees some efforts to bridge the present divide.
“We have some incredible minds who are not only using technology, but creating the technologies that the world uses. That’s the untold story; but it’s a story that needs to grow; that needs more of us using technology for productive, programmatic efforts.”
Wilcox points to the requirements of college professors that students check their grades online, and the growing number of employers only accepting online applications as vehicles forcing more people to get online.
“The assumption the government is making is that the gap is closed,” Wilcox said. “The digital divide is not getting smaller; it’s actually getting larger because the world continues to move onto the next thing.”