Internet Access in Philly Should Be Basic Human Right

With a recent FCC report highlighting the digital divide, maybe it's time to re-think our approach to the web.

For a country that consumes such a huge amount of electronic devices and media, you’d think that the United States is so web-connected that we’re almost wet-wired for access at this point. Not so, according to the FCC’s most recent broadband progress report, which found that some 119 million Americans are without access to broadband, the standard form of Internet service in most of the developed world. Some 19 million Americans don’t even have the option to purchase broadband service, while the other 100 million simply just don’t (or financially can’t) subscribe. Our broadband subscription rate hangs at just 27.6 subscribers per 100 residents, putting the U.S. just ahead of countries like Slovenia, Estonia and Malta. In short, at least in terms of Internet access, we are really screwing up.

And you’d best believe Philly is screwing up, too. The last census found that about 74 percent of U.S. households have web access of some form for at least one resident. Philadelphia households don’t even come close to that, with less than 20 percent of North and West Philly homes reporting regular Internet access. The city-wide digital divide rate usually thrown out in pieces like this is 41 percent (230,000 households) thanks to a 2008 Knight Foundation study. However, more recent research from the Investigative Reporting Workshop puts that number at just under 55 percent—and that’s using the aforementioned broadband standard. Even more recent research, this time coming from Temple professor Charles Kaylor, puts it at 55.2 percent.

We’re home to Comcast, which connects some 20 percent of wired homes. The ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer, was invented here. Some of us are trying to make—or already consider—this city the next big tech hub on the East Coast. But still, fewer than half of our residents can even get online to watch or read about it.

Why that seems to be the case is far less surprising. As with most things, it comes down to cash flow: According to a recent Pew Research Center report, nearly 90 percent of households netting $75,000 or more annually have broadband access. Conversely, less than 40 percent of Americans pulling in $30,000 or less can go online from their homes; surely that sentiment is mirrored in Philly, with our near-27-percent poverty rate. By comparison, Washington, D.C.’s poverty rate hovers around 20 percent, and that city’s access rate overall as of 2009 was just over 65 percent. It appears, then, that Internet Service Providers are essentially pricing out the poorer segments of the population for no particular reason at all, other than wanting more money for a standard service.

This digital divide issue is a defining problem for Philadelphia, as well as for any other city with its connection rate so far down the toilet. To be sure, living in a major city without Internet access today is essentially living totally cut off from a thriving, ever-expanding culture that drives the information-and-meme-centered brain of contemporary society. These 55 percent of Philadelphians are completely removed from that culture, scratching in the dark and using the old-fashioned dead tree method to stay abreast of current events and trends, inevitably ending up miles behind the rest of the connected population. More than that, a lack of digital literacy surely makes the job market, and even high school, a rougher place.

Some have stepped up to help. Locally, there’s the lauded KEYSPOT initiative, the grant-funded program that used nearly $12 million in federal stimulus grants to open some 70 computer centers throughout the city. That initiative also provided Philadelphians with digital literacy training, 5,000 new broadband subscriptions and 5,000 new PCs. National Technology Resources distributes $100 PCs to low-income families and provides hardware and basic operation training. Even the monolithic Comcast offers discounted broadband in the form of their Internet Essentials program, which launched last year and offers low-income families—those that have a child enrolled in the free lunch program—a slower connection for $9.95 a month.

Even with this amount of help (and more), though, the divide remains. Perhaps what really is necessary here is a shift in perception rather than merely a change in policy or outreach. With broadband access as integral as it is now, how much of a choice is it to be a subscriber, especially if you’d like to fully participate in modern American society? I personally would have to go with the increasingly common European perspective: There isn’t a choice—Internet access is a basic human right. Finland, France, the Netherlands, even the UN have espoused that they’d like their citizens to have regular, easy and quick Internet access. The UN even parroted that view this past July, much to the dismay of several voices in the tech world. And not for nothing, but Philly seems just European enough to take up the mantle for that cause stateside.

So whaddaya think, Mr. Mayor? An upvote for your thoughts.