Monday, July 30, 2007

The Digital Divide

I was with a client recently who was still on dialup and although she wanted very much to upgrade to highspeed, her husband (who doesn't use the computer) didn't want to spend the money for it. The problem with dialup these days are some websites including popular ones like eBay and especially YouTube are designed for broadband users. In fact it's next to impossible to view videos on YouTube on a dialup connection. Although this client doesn't have any plans to go on YouTube, her problem related to her not being able to receive emails with large attachments. It is not uncommon anymore to receive emails with a bunch of digital photos, and downloading 2 or 3 emails with attachments can be very time-consuming ... in her case, if she continued trying to download those emails with attachments, it would have taken her about 2 hours.

On the one hand, this couple could really very much afford to upgrade to highspeed. They subscribe to cable TV which some folks would easily drop if they had to choose whether to pay for cable TV or highspeed internet access. Her husband just doesn't understand the merits of highspeed internet access because he doesn't use the computer. I suspect that in a few months (or even weeks), this couple will be upgrading to highspeed internet access. They can definitely afford it. If only they lived in an area where Verizon's DSL access is available, upgrading to highspeed wouldn't be a cost issue since Verizon's DSL packages start at about $15/month, costing about the same as some dialup packages out there.

But there's another part of our population who cannot afford the overall cost of highspeed internet access. That overall cost includes a computer which cannot be too old (more than 5 years old) otherwise it may not handle the videos on YouTube. A recent article on Washington Post talks about how this digital divide could affect the coming Presidential elections --- America's digital divide.

It's interesting to see how the internet has really matured as a medium. Various groups are arguing that access to the internet should be available to everyone. In the early days of TV, there too was a divide among those who had a TV in their living room, and those who didn't have one. Now, almost everyone has a TV and maybe the only ones that don't are the ones who choose not to have one. TVs are very inexpensive now and unless you really want cable TV, access is free (because advertisers and donors pay for it). Can we apply the same model to internet access?

There's probably a good chance that internet access itself can be given away for free and supported by an advertising model, or maybe even by tax dollars. But a computer is harder to maintain than a TV. You can buy a TV from a local store, plug it in and for the next 20 years expect it to give you trouble-free access to your news and favorite shows. The same cannot be said for a computer these days. Chances are you will get infected with a virus or spyware at some point and even if you have the latest and greatest anti-virus software, you may have to call somebody to help you clean up the infection. Software and hardware continue to improve so in 5 years, your computer may not be sufficient to handle the content on the internet. I know this was true when my Mom complained she couldn't hear the music from an electronic greeting card she received. At first I thought she only had the volume down, but it turned out that her computer was just too old to handle the card's animation and audio. So whatever solution we come up with will also have to address the expected maintenance and upgrades that computer users will be needing.

We do have public sites like the local libraries that can help bridge the gap, but this may not be realistic in the long run for families with kids who may need access to the internet when they're doing their homework at night. But I support and applaud what I've seen at least in the Howard County Library. I know of friends who do not have a computer and they regularly use the computers in the library to access their emails. I also have a friend whose computer broke down right when her son needed it for his homework, so they immediately ran to the library and used the computers there. She did get her computer fixed the following week as it would not be realistic to drive her son to the library every night he needed the computer. On the one hand, our friends who do not have a computer (this is by choice by the way), still choose to go to the library to check their emails.

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