OP-ED | Connecticut’s Digital Divide Could Widen if Popular Devices are Locked Out of U.S.
The country’s wealth and income gap continues to draw attention from pundits and policymakers alike. Connecticut, perhaps more than most states, exemplifies the issue.
We are home to some of the country’s wealthiest communities as well as some of its poorest cities. However, sometimes the divide is more subtle than the stark contrast of a picture of a mansion on sprawling estate just a few miles from a dilapidated apartment complex. There is also the digital divide – access to Internet access and technology – and closing the digital divide has become one of the most pressing public policy issues in the modern connected world.
In many ways, technology is a great equalizer. Broadband Internet access and a variety of computers, tablets, and smartphones have enabled people from all walks of life to shop, stay in touch with friends and family and access information instantaneously. Still, however, access gaps remain.
Here in New Haven, JUNTA empowers the Latino and low-income community to take control of their economic and social well-being. We offer a wide range of adult education and children’s programs and promote a culture of community involvement and advocacy through our programs and initiatives from economic development to immigrant rights. The people who come through our doors rely on their smartphones just as much as people anywhere else. As it turns out, Latinos and people in low-income communities rely on these devices even more.
For many families, broadband Internet access at home is simply too expensive. The best available option for tapping information, shopping, doing research for homework and connecting to others is a mobile device like a smartphone.
The Pew Center is a leading authority on Internet connectivity trends and data. In a report issued last spring, researchers found thirteen percent of Americans with an annual household income of less than $30,000 per year are smartphone-dependent for Internet access. Meanwhile, just one percent of Americans whose income is $75,000 or more depend solely on their smartphone. Overall, thirteen percent of Hispanics were considered smartphone-dependent but only four percent of Anglo-Americans were. It is not only this uneven reliance on mobile devices that contribute to the digital divide. It is the devices themselves. If a person is low-income, it is especially important their devices represent a good value; they must be reliable while being affordable.
Unfortunately, some of the most popular of these devices, a range of products made by Samsung and Qualcomm, could be blocked from the U.S. market because a company called Nvidia claims that Samsung and Qualcomm violated its patents within millions of tablets and smartphones. Subsequently, Nvidia petitioned the International Trade Commission (ITC) to issue an exclusion order to bar devices from entering the country. Recently, an ITC judge in the case took an important step in a preliminary determination by effectively rejecting Nvidia’s claim. But while the news is good for now, the ITC must not waiver from its determination as the case will likely continue for a formal ITC ruling some months from now.
Naturally, if the products that Latino communities depend on were not available it would cause an unnecessary hardship. Many Americans are fortunate to take for granted their ability to upgrade or buy another phone when needed or technology advances. But imagine if you are among the people who would have to forgo or postpone replacing the device you depend on. It is not only the convenience mobile devices provide that would be lost. The ability to access information about employment, services, health care and keeping in touch would also be lost. This creates more disadvantages, a step back and widens the digital divide.
It is commendable that governments and communities, non-profits, and our businesses have invested so much to bring Internet access and the latest technology to schools, libraries and community organizations like Junta. This collaboration is helping to pave the road to opportunity more evenly, even if significant bumps remain. In a recent online forum sponsored by the Washington Post, National Council of La Raza President and CEO Janet Muguia talked about these efforts and commented, “We need to make sure that as we are looking at all these great, shiny new objects out there, that our folks are really able to have that essential access.”
Her comments bring home that broadband access and access to devices are two sides of the same coin. Efforts by government and the private sector to broaden access and narrow the divide are critical. The debate about why the income gap has grown so much and how to best narrow it is complex. Let’s avoid reversing course and work to increase access rather than restrict it.
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