J.J. Po-An Hsieh, Georgia State University

Most of the 2016 presidential candidates’ policy platforms recognize the strategic importance of high-speed Internet (HSI), or broadband, in transforming the economy and spurring innovation.

The candidates appear motivated by a shared belief that high-speed Internet and HSI-enabled digital innovations – such as Uber, AirBnB, Amazon, Facebook, Google and so on – are driving economic growth and transforming society. The question then becomes what should be done to further unleash HSI’s potential economic and societal benefits.

The candidates approach Internet issues from different perspectives, dividing along party lines. Suggestions by Republicans Cruz and Rubio about minimizing Internet-related taxes and enhancing cybersecurity are indeed important. But these policy platforms are more relevant to the so-called Internet Haves than to the Internet Have-nots who aren’t online.

Only Democrats Clinton’s and Sanders’ stated policies aim to address the fundamental issue of the digital divide – the gap between those with digital technologies and access to high-speed Internet versus those without.

However, is what Clinton and Sanders endorse enough to get all Americans hooked up to blazing fast broadband and all it enables?

Current state of Internet access in the US

According to the Pew Research Center, the home broadband adoption rate in the U.S. dropped from 70 percent to 67 percent from 2012 to 2015.

Pew Research Center

Cost is a big factor for those who aren’t connected. At the same time, the majority of Americans indicated that having home broadband access (rather than mobile Internet) is critical for many important life activities, including job hunting, access to health information or government services and so on.

Some families do rely on mobile phones as an alternative to HSI, mostly because of its greater affordability. But mobile service providers impose a data cap. And smartphones have limited capabilities compared to regular desktops or laptops, so mobile access isn’t a perfect substitute.

Those who do not have home broadband or who rely on mobile Internet as their sole HSI access are usually socioeconomically disadvantaged (e.g., lower income, education), racial or ethnic minorities, and/or rural residents.

Percentage of adults who have home broadband.

Research suggests lack of HSI limits education opportunities, career development and social mobility.

Platform plans

Both Democrats aim to address the digital divide by offering broadband access to those who currently lack it.

Sanders’ platform asserts that HSI is “no longer a luxury” and he casts the digital divide as a rural infrastructure issue. By missing out on high-speed broadband access, rural residents aren’t able to use it for “21st century commerce, education, telemedicine and public safety.” Sanders’ Rebuild America Act

would invest US$25 billion over five years to expand high-speed broadband networks in underserved and unserved areas, and would boost speeds and capacity all across the country, particularly in rural areas.

Sanders’ website doesn’t mention how he’d hope to finance this expansion.

Clinton’s platform, too, stresses that HSI is “a necessity for equal opportunity and social mobility in a 21st-century economy.”

Part of her infrastructure plan calls for connecting “all Americans to the digital economy.”

She will finish the job of connecting America’s households to the Internet with a commitment that by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have access to affordable broadband. She will also invest new resources in bringing free Wi-Fi to public buildings and public transportation.

Clinton says she will “harness both public and private capital” to make it all happen.

These free or affordable broadband access plans seem reasonable. But a critical question remains: will the digital divide be resolved simply by offering high-speed Internet access at low or even no cost to the have-nots?

My research suggests the answer is “maybe not.”

Beyond access, new Internet users need support and training.
Colleen Taugher, CC BY

More to it than just hooking up

The results of numerous initiatives that aimed to address the digital divide collectively suggest the digital divide is a multifaceted problem.

Take, for instance, the case of the LaGrange Free High-Speed Internet Initiative in Georgia. Even when the city made free high-speed Internet access available to everyone, only about 40 percent of the 10,000 eligible households signed up. One cannot help but ask: it’s already free, why don’t you adopt it?

It turns out that for digital have-nots, the challenges go well beyond just the financial and material barriers. The disadvantaged may also need motivation, knowledge, skills and even confidence in order to use digital technologies. They also need social support that provides the needed assistance and encouragement so as to hop on the Internet. And they may not have opportunities for meaningful use of the high-speed Internet.

To help the disadvantaged cross the divide requires an orchestrated effort coordinating the various necessary resources – financial, technical, educational and social supports.

But once someone is online, it can be life-changing. Here’s how one physician described a patient from LaGrange:

She was financially strapped, didn’t have any income. She was using this and actually for her, it brought her out of depression. Because she was very depressed, and she was able to make human contact with people all around the world. And she had friends she would correspond with in India and other countries.

Even when the digital divide is bridged for some have-nots, we still find inequality in the way people use the Internet. This difference in usage behaviors between the socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged is called digital inequality or the second-level digital divide.

In particular, my colleagues and I found that the advantaged are much more productive in using broadband to attain educational, economic, health, financial, social and political benefits.

In other words, access to high-speed Internet may wind up reproducing and enhancing existing advantages.

There’s still a lot more to be done after you lay some cable.
Vattenfall, CC BY-NC-ND

The process is ongoing

Municipal governments launch initiatives to offer public broadband service with an eye toward multiple benefits: developing a digital labor force, attracting new investment, bridging the digital divide, and harnessing opportunities for digital innovations.

But other stakeholders aren’t as excited. For instance, incumbent service providers typically criticize these free initiatives as compromising their interests by offering competing service.

Some lawmakers (e.g., Cruz and Rubio) oppose such initiatives on the grounds government shouldn’t intervene with market mechanisms.

Even if a Clinton or Sanders administration is able to structure a deal that potentially serves the interests of different stakeholders – government, incumbent service providers, the digitally advantaged and disadvantaged – these initiatives typically encounter financial constraints that endanger their continuation. Any future economic downturn could also challenge the economic sustainability of such deals.

Successfully bridging the digital divide is complicated. Besides providing the financial resources and technological means, an effective plan would need to motivate and encourage the have-nots, develop their digital competencies, and provide technical and social support.

After connecting the disadvantaged to HSI, policymakers should be aware of the second digital divide – rooted in ongoing socioeconomic inequalities – and provide continuous training and community support.

Finally, a successful plan would likely structure deals that serve different stakeholders’ interests and are designed to sustain the initiatives.

J.J. Po-An Hsieh, Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems, Georgia State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. You know who’d get my vote for president? A candidate who’d tell the public, including those on the wrong side of this so-called great divide, that they don’t need to wait untold years for a government solution nor do they have to tolerated high levels of corrupt, crony capitalism in whatever solution these politicians do fund. And yes, that is the intent of this propaganda. The subsidies for those great divide solutions will be as corrupt as those for solar and wind power have been.

    No, I’d support someone who’d tell people that they were capable of solving their problems themselves. That’s makes perfect sense. If you lack the drive and initiative to get access to broadband for yourself, you’re not going to benefit from it anyway. You’ll loaf around, visiting celebrities-for-idiots websites and idling away your time. It will be worse than useless for you. Getting off your rump to pursue broadband is the first step in getting off your rump for life in general. Wait for government to do it and you’ll be waiting for them to do a host of other things you should be doing for yourself starting now.
    Step back to the last decades of the nineteenth century for an illustration. The NE United States had a culture of talent-enabling, risk-taking that was called “Yankee ingenuity” that really was Yankee-based. I recently read an article about when the British overlords in India sipped their drinks with ice, that ice came from frozen New England ponds and was shipped half-way around the world in sailing ships. That’s from what is today the land of Bernie ‘make everything free’ Sanders. Sad.

    In contrast, the South had the whining, complaining victim culture that I saw as a kid and that you hear all over today. The South was poor, people believed, not because Southerners weren’t displaying their own equivalent of Yankee ingenuity. It was poor because they were victims of those “Damn Yankees.” In fact, that expression was so common, my fourth-grade teacher told our class she was ten before she realized that “Damn Yankee” wasn’t a single word. And like all victims of an Evil Other, the Southern economy languished for over a century after the Civil War. Complaining about others doesn’t solve your problems. It never will.

    All that has finally changed, at least in the South. A couple of weeks ago, my water heater began to leak badly. The best replacement I could find came from Home Depot and was made by Rheem. Here’s where the latter is located.


    That water heater was made about 40 miles from where I live in Auburn, Alabama and was assembled mere weeks before I took it home. Note that, except for Rheem’s pool products, they’re headquartered and manufacture in the South. When I was a kid, that almost never happened. Almost anything manufactured came from “up nawth by dem damn Yankees.” Even the chain where I bought it is headquartered in nearby Atlanta. Times have changed. That, incidentally, is the real reason why the South tilts Republican. The Democrats are the party of whiners. Listen to any speech by Hillary, Bernie or faux-Republican Trump.

    That’s hardly remarkable. When I was a kid, zero cars were made in Alabama. This year or next, the state will make over a million cars. And that doesn’t take into account those made just over the border in Tennessee or Georgia. For that shift, you need only look at the UAW and the whining victim culture of unions in more northern climates. And interestingly, auto manufacturing has moved South just when the work got nice, mostly keeping assembly line robots in operation. No more “dark, satanic mills.”

    Those who don’t have broadband or have it at a price they could afford should get moving and do it themselves, perhaps in concert with like-minded people. They should wait for our current Keystone Cops-like crop of politicians to solve their problems. Do your want Hillary of the email fiasco solving your email problems? Don’t be absurd.

    In short, be just like me and that water heater. The old one, with its soldered plumbing, had clearly been installed by plumbers. That I couldn’t afford, so I found ways to replace it myself and I do believe that I did a quite good job of that. I not only improved the installation by putting it up on a platform and off the concrete floor, the next replacement should be much easier to install. That’s another reason for doing things yourself. You can do it better. Certainly better than any politician will do it.
    Keep in mind that I’m not so much disagreeing with what that professor intends, he’s practically a neighbor or mine, as the core principles on which wants to act. Government paternalism always leads to more paternalism. It’s always a downward spiral. Look at what’s happened to cities who’ve had trillions of dollars of such aid pouring into them over the last half-century. They are now hell-holes headed by corrupt politicians. Nothing crushes ingenuity, Yankee or otherwise, like political intervention.

    Government intervention in broadband by either Hillary or Bernie, will bring the same results that we’ve seen under the Obama administration with solar and wind power. The subsidies will enrich a few wealthy people who fill the pockets of politicians but result in no improvements in the lives of ordinary people. For instance, half a billion dollars of our tax money went into creating a solar power factory in California. Do you know anyone who went there to work at the jobs Obama promised? Of course not. Solyndra and a host of other companies took that money, enriched their founders, and then went belly up. Here’s a list of some of them worldwide.


    Notice all the “bankrupt” and “closed” remarks. Billions in dollars and Euros down a rat-hole.

    Do you really think those who gave us those very costly disasters will do any better with broadband? I don’t. If you want answers to problems the very last people you turn to, after even isolated tribes in the Amazon river basin, is one of these two Democrats running for president. To suggest otherwise is to talk nonsense. If you want to know what people and policies will do, all you need is to look at what they have done.

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