‘Digital divide’ expert to FCC: Make broadband cheaper

Karen Mossberger

Karen Mossberger: smartphones don’t close the digital divide. Photo: UIC Photo Services

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 University of Illinois at Chicago professor who will speak at a Federal Communications Commission summit in Washington, DC on Feb. 7.

The FCC summit on broadband adoption and usage will focus on best practices to close the “digital divide” that keeps large numbers of low-income households, racial and ethnic minorities, seniors, people with disabilities, and residents of rural areas and tribal lands from fully utilizing the Internet. Representatives of these groups and from the country’s largest broadband providers, government agencies, and academia will meet at the summit.

Smart Communities, a program of the City of Chicago to increase broadband use in five low-income communities, will be discussed by Karen Mossberger, head of UIC’s department of public administration and co-author of several books on the digital divide. She and Caroline Tolbert of the University of Iowa studied the city’s program under a grant from Partnership for a Connected Illinois.

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

Smart-phones 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, while 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).