Spreading Internet Access.

Bloggers and columnists, in the flurry of predictions that come at the start of any new year, are wondering how we'll consume media in 2010. What will be the new Twitter? Will any of it will be enough to save old media outlets? These questions are important, but it's worth remembering that in a vast swath of the United States, residents often don't even have access to sites like Twitter.

About two-thirds of Americans have access to broadband Internet in their homes, but in rural areas fewer than 40 percent do, according to a 2008 Pew survey. While the number of rural Americans getting access to Internet connections fast enough to truly consume media online is growing, 15 percent of dial-up users in rural areas said there was no broadband service available to which they could make the switch. More than a third said the price of broadband would have to fall. The same survey says those who are not online are more than twice as likely to be low-income.

The stimulus package set aside $7 billion to help broadband networks reach areas too sparsely populated for private companies to recoup investments, but that effort is merely getting started. And it may take more than improved access to close the "participation gap" highlighted by MIT professor Henry Jenkins. Danah Boyd echoed these sentiments last week:

It's not just a question of what you get to experience with your access, but what you get to experience with your friend group with access. In other words, if you're friends with 24/7 always-on geeks, what you're experiencing with social media is very different than if you're experiencing social media in a community where your friends all spend 12+ hours a day doing a form of labor that doesn't allow access to internet technologies. Facebook's data provides a glimpse into how Facebook access has become mainstream. It is the modern day portal. But I would argue that what people experience with this tool - and with the other social media assets they use - looks very different based on their experience.

So while the industry considers the new ways to consume media, low-income Americans will just be another year behind.

--Monica Potts

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