More Broadband Thoughts From The Weekend

Over the weekend, I continued to get feedback on my column last week discussing the urgent need for national broadband policy. In addition, I stopped by the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco on Saturday.

I was there officially because my wife, Jennnifer Schradie, was presenting her latest academic paper (shameless plug): The Digital Divide And Web 2.0 Collide: The Digital Production Gap. The paper examines the growing gap between those who are able to participate in online activities and those who can not, based on socioeconomic status.

She was followed on her panel by two other researchers who were looking at different aspects of the digital divide. And both of their presentations left me with a couple of interesting takeaways regarding broadband.

First was Timothy Hale, a project manager at the University of Alabama at Birmingham presenting a paper he co-authored: “The Association Between Computer and Web Use for Health Information, Well-being, and Gender.” (other authors: Patricia Drentea, Melinda Goldner, Shelia Cotten).

The key point that struck me here:  In discussing issues people in rural areas face, he noted that the lack of broadband access and adoption was one of several factors leading this population to spending less time reading health information online. In an area where there also tends to be fewer physicians and hospitals, the lack of broadband is also making them less informed about their health than people in high-density areas with plentiful broadband access.

But would universal broadband solve all those problems? Not necessarily, based on the presentation that followed from Laura Robinson, a researcher in the department of sociology at the University of Santa Clara.

Robinson noted that the statistics alone on Internet adoption and broadband usage can be highly misleading. Many folks are embarrassed to admit they don’t have one or the other when a researcher calls. And even if they do, what it means to have broadband can vary widely.

For instance, a low-income person might say they’re online, but if they’re working two jobs, shuttling their kids around, and cleaning the house, they might have only 15 minutes to spare to actually surf the Web.

On the other hand, a higher-income person, or someone with more leisure time, who has a faster computer, might spend several hours a day on the computer. In the process, they become even more efficient at using their time, and gain greater knowledge about job opportunities, and other services that might benefit them.

Also, the amount of time someone spends online using services like social networking is likely to be highly influenced by how much time their friends spend using those services. If you know a lot of people who spend a lot of time on Facebook, it’s more likely you will, too. But if not, there’s less incentive. And that can serve to reinforce the usage gap.

After the presentations, during the Q&A, I asked Hale and Robinson about how these two findings fit together. On one hand, it seems to reinforce the need for universal broadband to improve things like health care. But on the other hand, it seemed the upside might be limited by many other factors.

They agreed, but felt that what was important was to view greater broadband access and adoption as a starting point, rather than a panacea. Education on how to leverage the power of the Web and broadband would also be key, as well as continuing to address some of the other disadvantages.


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