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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Creating More Oases in Our Digital Deserts

Internet access is, increasingly, a necessity

Irina Raicu

In a recent NY Times op-ed, the president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, writes, “No child can have equal access to education, nor any worker equal access to a job, without access to the internet and the digital training to use it skillfully. Our federal, state and local policies must recognize there can be no full equality without digital equality.” His piece reiterates what has become a long-standing complaint: that many people throughout the US lack access to the internet, and are increasingly hampered by that lack, as many services and opportunities transition to being exclusively online. In New York, Marx notes, “25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack [broadband] at home.”

In California, according to a recent poll highlighted by The Sacramento Bee, “Just 68 percent of people who make less than $22,000 reported being able to get online at home.” And in an expose titled “Disconnected in Silicon Valley’s Shadow,” The Daily Dot reporter Rebecca Huval points out that in places like Fresno county, not too far from the great Silicon Valley tech companies, the numbers of people who can’t afford internet access at home are striking—as are the limitations and difficulties that this creates in their lives. She writes about a local farmer and activist who says, “A lot of the people I talk to speak as though they don’t have a right to participate in society because they’re so used to having that door slammed in their face because they’re being told, ‘Oh, it’s on the internet.’”

The internet was supposed to be a portal to opportunities previously undreamt of, not a slammed door that would actually constrain access to key services.

We may debate whether internet access is a human right, a civil right, or neither—but the reality is that it is, increasingly, a necessity. For low income citizens, insufficient public transportation and insufficient locations in which to access the internet for free combine into a particularly daunting gauntlet, which is bound to exacerbate the already vast economic divide in the US (and in particular in Silicon Valley).

We live in a time and a place where some complain about being addicted to or enslaved by technology, in need of a digital detox, and worried about their children being negatively impacted by too much time spent online, while others dream of not having to wait for two hours to access a public computer at their local library, or for their kids not to have to sit outside a McDonald’s in order to do their homework via the business’ free Wi-Fi.

Several programs do offer low-cost internet access for households that meet certain criteria; recently, for example, Comcast announced that “[p]ublic housing and HUD-assisted residents living in Comcast’s service area are now eligible to apply for Internet Essentials, the company’s high-speed internet adoption program for low-income families. An estimated total of up to 2 million HUD-assisted homes… will now have access to low-cost internet service due to the expansion.”

An alternative program, run through public libraries, offers temporary access for free.

In his op-ed, the president of the New York Public Library describes an initiative started in 2014, with help from Google and several foundations, which has allowed libraries in the city (as well as some more rural areas in other states) to lend to their patrons “a total of 10,000 cellphone-size Wi-Fi hot-spot devices for up to a year in neighborhoods that are digital deserts.” According to American Libraries Magazine, other libraries have tried or are trying similar programs, experimenting in an effort to find out what works best for their local population. In 2015, for example, the San Mateo County Library started to offer a program through which patrons can borrow Wi-Fi hotspots and hotspot/laptop combos (the latter, however, only for seven days at a time). The Kansas City Public Library offers “hotspots to students and their families for an entire school year.”

Temporary access may not be the ultimate solution, but there are times when it would make a great difference to people who would otherwise have to travel and wait for hours in order to do what they can only do online. Such lending programs, however, are apparently very expensive. Would mesh networking be another way to fulfill the need, as it does, for example, for refugees in Germany? What else might we try in order to make internet access—together with the digital literacy education that should accompany it—readily accessible to all low-income residents of Silicon Valley and all of California as well?

(AP Photo/Verena Dobnik)

Aug 23, 2016

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