It seems eons ago that when you wanted to make a call, you found a payphone and dropped in some change, when you needed a photocopy, you inserted a quarter, and if you wanted to used the hotel business centre you put in coins or swiped your credit card to access the internet. But, times have changed, I can do all of these things and more from my own portable device. But, is the coin or credit card reader soon to be installed again, but on our own devices to control who accesses what? Pay per use?
This week I have read about the digital divide and network neutrality, which paints a challenging picture for public policy makers, small internet start-ups, and individuals that are trying to ensure the internet and the digital world are equally accessible and secure for all users. Portable devices are so sophisticated that we can do everything we would do at home from a landline via WiFi or through our cellular data package while on the go. This has opened up the internet and the digital world to many that could not have otherwise afforded more expensive home devices and home hard-wired ISP fees. Portable devices can operate on a data package, but even these costs can be reduced by accessing free WiFi. Our digital world has become more accessible to many in developing countries and lower socio-economic classes while becoming portable for all.
There are a few issues that concern me as I read about the digital divide. With wireless and wired infrastructure being maxed out with our increased downloading and uploading, are mega corporations and a few monopolizing
ISPs going to limit what content is accessible and by whom while charging large fees to the consumer? Are changes to FCC rules favouring Facebook, Netflix, Google, and others that can afford the “fast lane” over smaller start-ups and educational institutions trying to provide open source education? Are we essentially installing the loathed coin or credit card reader on our own devices again so those who can afford can access the full network while others are limited to dial-up and basic cable (or peasant vision if you remember the analog TV towers of rural areas)?
It seems like we have come so far by developing sophisticated wireless devices that allow us to transport our work and communication needs wherever we go along with making such devices more affordable, which has translated into more equitable access to the internet. Wired connections have also improved over the years along with virtually being able to find a free WiFi connection wherever you go. Now that exponential access is being seen as a strain to the infrastructure, the FCC and corporations are posing pay per use solutions rather than improving and developing the infrastructure for all users. Sounds like another private solution to a public problem. Cade Metz is right, altruistic rhetoric of private corporations claims these changes are in the interest of pubic good, but are really profit driven.
Although published in 2000, this study by Statistics Canada provides Canadian data and some interesting graphics on the digital divide based on income. Further, PEW Research provides telling data on white, Hispanic, and black populations and the digital divide in the United States and smart phone and internet usage across the globe. This article makes correlations to income, age, and level of education.
The data makes it apparent that the digital divide is alive and well. In a democratic society that champions equitable opportunity for all, then we must consider how to maintain equitable access to the digital world of the internet. If networked learning and open education are the future, then putting limits via user fees on access only serve to defeat the original purpose of opening opportunities to all. As Sarah Wandy points out, we often take the internet and the work done to maintain neutrality and prevent digital divide. How can we as individuals continue to support these efforts and advocate against the negative controls of corporations that seek to line their pockets and narrow the open access of the digital world?