Few of us could imagine life without Internet access.
Accessing the Internet for information, entertainment, and functions like banking are now well integrated in Americans’ daily lives. In March, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released results from a February 2012 survey indicating that 46% of Americans over 18 years own a smartphone, a 31% increase in less than 12 months. However, almost one-third of Americans do not subscribe to high-speed Internet services at home, which is now the primary metric used to segment the digital divide. This translates to a projected opportunity cost of .3% to 4.2% of GDP.
Disparities in adoption rates are clear across race, educational attainment, age, and disability status. However, regression analysis among “like” populations shows that when researchers control for income, differences in high-speed Internet adoption shrink.
The power of the Internet to empower civic engagement, social development and economic mobility is well-documented. Recently, the United Nations recognized high-speed broadband as the critical tool for global engagement in the 21st century. Why broadband? Simply put, the speed of the connection impacts the amount of interaction and utility for the end-user.
Dial-up speeds are no longer relevant for participating in the information economy. Emerging applications such as telemedicine, virtual learning, and environmental monitoring exemplify avenues to achieving development goals such as improved health outcomes, universal primary education, and environmental sustainability. To support the Millenium Development Goals, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development issued a Broadband Challenge in 2011, which, among other proposals, called upon every nation to adopt universal broadband plan by 2015.
However, even knowing the economic benefits of investing in broadband, the cost of doing so is a significant barrier to implementation. We’ve seen enough examples of the how market forces create binary access based on income and geography to know that until we re-frame the provision of Internet access, digital exclusion will persist.
Sharing access is the Internet, re-imagined. Wireless broadband, or wi-fi, has great potential as a shareable resource — it’s not constrained by physical limitations (other than signal strength) and there’s bandwidth enough to accommodate multiple users. There’s no need to operate within siloed ownership structures, where a 1:1 service per user ratio is highly inefficient.
Sharing addresses the issue of cost by distributing the expense over more users; one model that that appears to be economically sustainable is a rental system. In this model, hosts of wifi hotspots can recoup a portion of their costs for providing service, whereas renters can manage their expenses, paying less they would for a service contract. In the U.S., the threshold of affordability for the lowest earning households, with incomes less than $20,000 per year, was found to be around $10/month; the national average monthly fee for broadband service is actually closer to $40. This affordability gap could be narrowed through collaborative consumption.
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