Levin, Downes Get Some Pushback on Urban, 'Education Divide,' Broadband Uptake Theory

Researchers said price remains key issue
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FCC Broadband Plan architect Blair Levin and author Larry Downes are getting some pushback on their theory that the digital divide is mostly an education divide, rather than one driven by price or lack of access.

Levin is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and Downes a senior fellow at the Center for Business and Public Policy.

In an op ed in the Washington Post Sept. 13, Levin and Downes said the digital divide is not primarily a rural divide--three times as many urban homes are not connected--and in any event access "is not the main reason" those without internet access don't have it.

"The vast majority of U.S. homes without broadband service could have it today, but they don’t want it," they wrote.

"The real problem is convincing those who are offline [primarily "poorer, older, and less educated " urban residents] of the value of being part of our digital life."

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In fact, they went so far as to say the focus on deployment is a distraction from that prime problem of educating people on the value of broadband. For that matter, they say, broadband has been deployed faster than almost any other technology ever, and say mobile broadband will be filling in some of those deployment gaps.

They also cite Comcast's Internet Essentials low-income subsidy and the shift of Universal Service Fund support to broadband as reasons price is not as much of an issue in lack of uptake.

But in a response published by the Benton Foundation, Colin Rhinesmith, assistant professor, Simmons University School of Library and Information Science, and Bibi Reisdorf, assistant professor in communication studies at the University of North Carolina argue that while they agree the digital divide is not primarily rural, the suggestion that price is not a driving force behind urban non-adoption misses the mark.

"In stark contrast to Levin and Downes’ claims that low-income people are simply too uneducated to understand the importance of home broadband access," they write, "various studies have shown that these communities are extremely aware of the importance of having internet access -- they simply cannot afford even the low-cost options for in-home access. This is why ongoing research is needed to examine the everyday experiences of low-income people and their challenges paying for the high cost of broadband at home."

They put in a plug for funding libraries among other "digital inclusion organizations" as a way to more holistically address the broadband deficits of low-income families.

Rhinesmith and Reisforf, said that "as researchers who study digital inequalities in rural and urban communities across the U.S., we want to ensure that this national debate includes the voices of those most impacted by the digital divide." 

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