The FCC Takes on the Digital Divide

Feb 8, 2013

desert wifi
Credit °Florian / Flickr

An FCC proposal for free public wifi has the wireless telecommunications industry rushing to the barricades to defend their turf. The Washington Post's technology section reports that the proposal, designed by FCC chair Julius Genachowski, is intended to spark innovation beyond companies like Google (who happens to support the plan).

But how might this proposal impact poor and working-class communities priced out of what has quickly become a public utility? Many of the opportunities we report on for State of Opportunity---equal education, employment opportunities, fair housing---increasingly rely on internet access. The assumption that anyone can go to the library and get on the web neglects the realities of wait times and limited time on a very much in-demand resource. 

The potential for interference with existing networks seems to be the wireless industry's main point of opposition at the moment. 

"'We want our policy to be more end-user-centric and not carrier-centric. That%u2019s where there is a difference in opinion' with carriers and their partners, said a senior FCC official..."

Does public wifi necessarily mean the appearance of devices equipped to use it? If cities pin their hopes on public wifi as a valuable resource for schools and hospitals, where will the computers and networks come from to take advantage of it? What's the likelihood that FCC public hearings on free public wifi will come to the communities that would benefit most? 

Perhaps public wifi might make visible the digital divide?  Jack Linchua Qui, assistant professor of journalism and communications, calls the information "have-less" in both cities and rural areas crucial beneficiaries of low-cost telecommunications technologies. 

These questions are likely far off considerations, but movement on the issue of rising broadband costs and access has implications for everyone.