February 19, 2011

Digital divide pinpointed in survey of online access

WASHINGTON - A first-of-its-kind federal survey of online access found that Americans in lower-income and rural areas often have slower Internet connections than users in wealthier communities.

The data, released Thursday by the Commerce Department, also found that 5 to 10 percent of the nation does not have access to connections that are fast enough to download Web pages, photos and videos.

Compiled in an online map that is searchable by consumers - assuming they have a fast enough broadband connection - the survey seems to confirm that there is a digital divide, something experts had suspected but lacked the data to prove.

Extending access to high-speed Internet one of President Barack Obama's priorities. He has outlined an $18 billion plan to blanket 98 percent of the nation with high-speed mobile broadband connections over five years.

But some experts were disappointed with the study, which was based on advertised maximum speeds submitted by companies such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. The Commerce Department didn't test the speed data, and many experts complained that the survey lacks pricing information, which would enable better comparisons of service across regions.

Still, industry watchers praised the map - which will cost $200 million over five years, funded by the federal economic stimulus program - for shedding light on business practices that have long been murky. Companies closely hold information about where they operate, but the map discloses which kinds of services are available - cable, fiber, DSL and wireless - down to the census block level. Researchers said the map will be an important tool for understanding which populations have access to high-speed Internet. The telecom and cable industries say that they are working to provide high speeds across the country but that the effort takes time. Speed matters, experts say, because consumers with better Internet connections can be more productive and get more out of the Web.

The Commerce Department's telecom policy arm, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, said 32 percent of U.S. households don't use the Internet at home, a slight decrease from last year.

Forty percent of rural homes don't connect to the Web, compared with 30 percent of urban homes, the agency said. Those who aren't using the Internet say they don't think it is a necessity and that prices are too high, and about 9 percent of people in rural areas say they don't have access to high-speed connections, the NTIA said. Often, the poorer areas of the country aren't offered the fastest download speeds, according to the data.

by Cecilia Kang Washington Post Feb. 19, 2011 12:00 AM

Digital divide pinpointed in survey of online access

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