More households use high-speed Internet service than ever before, but socioeconomic and racial differences significantly determine who has a fast connection and who does not.
A new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found the gap between low-income and high-income households ranges from 16 to 34 percentage points.
Race is also an important factor. Non-Hispanic white Americans and Asian Americans are more likely to use a high-speed connection than African Americans and Hispanics. Affordability, demand and availability are the primary reasons people have not adopted high-speed Internet in their homes, according to the census data used in the report.
In California, the percentage of households using high-speed Internet at home increased substantially from 2001 to 2009 from 13 to 68 percent. But compared to other states, California's number of broadband users dropped from fourth to 14th, the report found.
Why does high-speed access matter? A struggle to find quality broadband access in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, reported by the San Francisco Public Press, is illustrative of how a high-speed connection can have an impact. The Tenderloin Tech Lab, operated by St. Anthony’s Foundation and San Francisco Network Ministries, offers low-income and homeless people free services such as drop-in Internet access, basic computer instruction and job-search assistance.
The center was relying on AT&T’s lower-cost DSL service, but they could only connect at 20 percent of the standard speed. With the help of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, they were able to negotiate a more affordable price for higher-speed Internet from Comcast. Now the lab provides online video materials, something it could not do with DSL.
In recent years, many initiatives have focused on the digital divide in California. More than $542 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been dedicated to broadband projects in the state. One recipient, the California Emerging Technology Fund has pledged to bring broadband Internet to 70 percent of Californians by 2015.
A unique program called the California Advanced Services Fund has been working to increase high-speed access by providing funding to broadband service providers to expand infrastructure into underserved areas of California. Many of these areas are rural, remote or socio-economically disadvantaged communities.
Have they been successful?
In December 2007, the California Public Utilities Commission allocated $100 million over two years to the fund. Funding comes from a surcharge most of us have to pay on our phone bills. After the Legislature approved a measure in February that allows it to collect an additional $125 million, the California Advanced Services Fund now has a total of $225 million to spend on increasing broadband access. But over the last three years, the program has faced challenges:
- The program is having a hard time convincing service providers to apply for funding. Since its inception, it has only been able to spend roughly half of the original $100 million allotted. The state commission did not respond to a request for comment.
- No one knows if funding broadband access has resulted in increased use. The commission doesn't currently have any statistics but hopes to include data in a report to the Legislature in April 2011, Susan Carothers, a commission spokeswoman, said in an e-mail response.
The Division of Ratepayer Advocates, part of the state commission, filed a petition in September that urged the commission to encourage adoption of high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved communities. They suggested capping monthly rates, prohibiting installation charges and requiring funding recipients to explain how they will ensure that customers can get and afford broadband.
"It doesn't make sense to have $100 million worth of grants – they're now authorized for another $125 million – and not do anything to encourage adoption,” said Natalie Billingsley, program and project supervisor at the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. “You put the pipes in the ground but didn't do anything to make sure people would come."