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'Digital Divide' Overlooked As Party Conventions Embrace The Web

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DIGITAL DIVIDE
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With a steady stream of blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos, the presidential campaigns have increasingly embraced the web as a way to speak directly to voters.

And this week will be no different. The Republican National Convention in Tampa, which is calling itself the "Convention Without Walls," will be live-streaming the convention on YouTube, releasing a mobile app and encouraging Facebook users to share their photos and videos. The upcoming Democratic National Convention in Charlotte has planned similar digital outreach.

Yet millions of Americans won't be able to participate. They are blocked from experiencing much of the online world because they don't have access to high-speed Internet. About one third of Americans -- or 100 million people -- do not subscribe to broadband. This so-called "digital divide" will likely receive little, if any attention during the political conventions.

But bridging the technology gap fits squarely within the candidates' platforms for reducing unemployment, increasing access to health care and education, and helping the country compete in a globalized economy, experts say. Almost every aspect of today's society -- from looking for jobs to accessing online medicine and classrooms -- now requires a broadband connection, and those without access are quickly being left behind.

“I feel like I'm at a disadvantage,” said James Brunswick, a 51-year-old Philadelphia resident who is looking for a job but can't afford a computer.

There are different reasons why Americans are disconnected. About 19 million people, mostly in rural areas, don't have high-speed Internet because phone and cable companies don’t provide service to their location. In addition, many low-income Americans can't afford broadband subscriptions. About 40 percent of adults with household incomes less than $20,000 have broadband at home, compared to 93 percent with household incomes greater than $75,000, according to the F.C.C.

A growing number of people who can’t afford computers or Internet service are turning to smartphones as a more affordable way to get online. But experts warn that mobile devices -- with their small screens, data caps and slower speeds -- are no substitute for a computer with a high-speed connection.

To help more people join the digital age, the Obama administration set aside $7.2 billion to deploy high-speed Internet to unserved and low-income areas. The Federal Communications Commission has overhauled its Lifeline program to provide discounted Internet service to families in need and has partnered with major cable providers to supply $10 Internet access to households with a child enrolled in the national school lunch program.

But experts say more must be done. Some argue the next administration needs to regulate broadband providers to promote competition, which would give consumers more choices and lower prices for broadband service.

"We can throw subsidies at the problem all day, but it's not going to close the digital divide unless we have a robust, competitive market that will lead to lower prices and more attractive services," said Derek Turner, research director at the public-interest group Free Press.

However, there are other reasons why people don't get online. Some are not comfortable with the Internet, while others think the web is a waste of their time, surveys show. And while the price of computers is falling, many low-income Americans still can’t afford them and must rely on public libraries to get online -- a digital safety net that is starting to fray.

More than half of libraries say their Internet connections are not fast enough, and libraries nationwide are facing budget cuts that have forced them to close on weekends and evenings, according to the American Library Association.

"We are suffering from the perfect storm," said Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office.

About 80 percent of schools and libraries receiving federal funding for Internet service say their connections “do not fully meet their needs," according to an FCC report issued last week.

Stephanie Thomas is a history and government teacher at Broad Street High School in Shelby, Miss., a rural town of 2,000 people where nearly half of families live in poverty. Thomas often wants to show her students online videos or conduct interactive lessons, but the school’s limited bandwidth makes that impossible.

“We have the Internet but it can be extremely slow,” Thomas said. “There are times where I’ve wanted to show YouTube videos and I spend half of the class period waiting for it to load.”

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, which was released in 2010, offers a blueprint for helping more people join the digital age.

The plan suggests the commission provide wireless spectrum to companies on the condition that they offer free or low cost broadband service to low-income customers. It also recommends Congress provide more funding to teach low-income Americans how to use the Internet and help people with disabilities and Native Americans, who have especially low rates of broadband adoption, gain access to the web.

Turner said there is another reason why both presidential candidates should be concerned about the millions of Americans who are not online. They need their votes, and the Internet has become an increasingly popular platform for candidates to reach voters and voters to learn more about them.

"The Internet is rapidly becoming an indispensable tool for democratic participation," Turner said. "And we need to be concerned that there is a social cost to those who can't participate in that conversation."

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