D.C.'s Digital Rift

In this year's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama envisioned a new era of American education and prosperity that comes with being a full participant in the digital age: "Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn't just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls. It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age." In classic Obama style, he referred to a future where rural farmers in states such as Iowa and Alabama could become successful by selling their wares online, where students would be free to enter any classroom, and where patients could have video chats with doctors.

Obama wasn't just using a rhetorical flourish -- he was painting an image of the new digital future and how it could impact Americans' everyday lives. But while businesses prosper, an iron-clad gate still bars some Americans from a life online -- the classic, unresolved issues that surround families hovering on the edge of poverty. Those at risk of being left behind in the rush toward a new, digital future are easily identified in the pattern of American inequality: People of color, low-income residents, and those in rural and poor urban areas are once again watching the world move on without them.

Two years into his presidency, Obama has made stunning progress on many of his initiatives. Back in 2008, he made increasing broadband access in urban and rural areas a major campaign issue. In 2011, while broadband access remains low on the priority list of many Americans, the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies have wholeheartedly embraced moving toward a more wired nation. The FCC is two-thirds of the way through executing a national broadband plan, and state governments are trying to bridge budget shortfalls by competing for the $7.6 billion in stimulus funds earmarked for broadband access and expansion. But while all the major telecommunications firms are on board -- and working through the courts to ensure the most favorable deals for their respective companies -- harnessing the power of the Internet is an uphill battle for consumers, even in the nation's capital.

The digital divide is rapidly exposing existing societal rifts. Higher-income households are more engaged with technology and more likely to have a computer at home as well as consistent Internet access, when compared to lower-income households. Despite increased broadband Internet adoption rates over the last few years (and heavy engagement with mobile technology), African American and Hispanic broadband adoption rates still lag behind Caucasian usage rates, even when controlling for income.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Washington, D.C. While close to 100 percent of residents in the city's wealthier sections enjoy broadband at home or work, less than half of citizens in other areas can access the Web on a regular basis. Some parts of the city are way behind. Despite the District's proximity to major law and policy hubs and a heavily educated populace, the persistent gap exemplifies existing trends nationwide. The D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) states in its strategic plan on closing the digital divide that "broadband adoption is below 40%, on average, in Wards 5, 7, and 8," all predominantly African American areas of the city.

In hopes of encouraging adoption, OCTO has also partnered with community organizations to host broadband summits and sent representatives to town hall meetings to encourage access, while rolling out initiatives designed to stimulate usage rates. However, with limited resources available, this may be a daunting challenge.

The plan explains that a key part of implementation is using existing resources such as libraries -- but many libraries in the area are understaffed and unable to cope with the high demand for computers. George Williams, the media-relations manager for the D.C. Public Library, notes that thanks to a grant from part of the broadband stimulus package, the library system will add 1,000 public-access computers, expanding the number of computers available. Because the library is a major hub for residents to utilize free online services, this is a major step forward.

However, the popularity of the computers poses yet another problem -- as capacity increases, demand grows. No matter how many times libraries up their number of computers, more people come to use the service, increasing lines and wait times.

Further complicating matters is a decidedly low-tech issue. Outside of simple access to the hardware, OCTO's report also mentions a lack of broadband adoption due to conventional literacy problems -- but promotes free, online programs as an answer. It's not clear that any data shows that people will access these programs without at-home broadband access. And other logistical questions arise: Are they to work through the programs at libraries? What about existing usage limits? Are literacy programs as effective without an in-person tutor? Chris Tonjes, the director of information technology for D.C.'s library system, says OCTO would offer a combination of computer-based and literacy training. That just increases issues of capacity, and the libraries are already taxed by meeting constituents' varied demands.

Some neighborhoods have taken the idea of access into their own hands. In Bloomingdale, located in Ward 5, residents have started an ambitious project to provide free wireless access to their entire neighborhood. According to TBD's last update in late October, community activists were working with OCTO to find a way to loop in D.C. government as a project participant. D.C. also plans to provide wireless access points at the National Mall.

However, most of the core problems still remain -- D.C.'s low literacy rates, lack of affordable monthly access from many carriers, and inherent limitations of public-access points. Many of the solutions seem incomplete at best, dealing with one aspect of a problem and not others. To that end, not much can be done. "It's very important," DCPL's Tonjes explains, "for people who want to be involved in this to advocate and educate. [But] ultimately, it's up to individual people to decide if they want to be connected."

Still, this problem goes a bit further than individual choice. While city officials are spending the lion's share of their BTOP grants on wiring hardware and upgrading D.C. government systems, much less attention has been paid to the "why" behind the failure to adopt broadband citywide. The national broadband plan may have lofty goals, but the failure to critically engage with users across the country may prove to be a problem that the best minds in government and business didn't bother to solve.