04/11/2011 03:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

Address the Digital Divide in the Cost of Wireless

Too often, broadband policy is talked about in terms of "access" to providers, as if making a broadband option available is enough.  But in a speech at the Free Press conference,  FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn made it clear the issue has to include cost as well:

In considering all of the factors relating to America's minority and lower-income citizens, and realizing how hard people work to claw past their monthly bills only to immediately start fretting about next month, we must be vigilant - super-vigilant - about the direction the wireless industry is heading.

Many people hope that wireless phones can become an access point for many low-income folks to the Internet, but cost is one of the biggest obstacles to that goal.   The Pew Internet & American Life Project has highlighted in a past report that even if high-speed Internet service was available to the entire nation, about one-third of Americans not currently using broadband still wouldn't because of the expense.

When the federal government published its broadband map back in February, it provided impressive detail on where broadband was available and the speeds for various states, but what was sorely lacking were details on what the costs of access were for people.    Providers get away with treating pricing as "proprietary" information not to be shared with the public, but if policymakers are going to get a true handle on closing the digital divide, they need to keep cost in the equation as well as "access."

The reality is that even if everyone has Internet service available in their community, that doesn't mean an individual will be able to afford it or, in a related question, have the digital literacy to take advantage of Internet-based communication.  These are related since, while almost anyone can potentially gain economically from the Internet, whether through accessing work and learning opportunities at a distance or using online services for local projects, the costliness of Internet access may prevent many people from ever gaining the skills to take advantage of the online world. Cutting the cost of Internet access will encourage more people to take the plunge, gain the digital skills to participate in the digital economy, and, in turn, hopefully be able to afford higher costs as their income rises.

But unless cost of access is addressed, we are likely to see  the reverse vicious cycle of high Internet costs keeping many people from gaining needed digital skills, which in turn will keep them trapped in poverty.

Commissioner Clyburn is pushing in the right direction and hopefully we'll start seeing greater focus on tracking costs systematically as an obstacle to bringing broadband to everyone, as the Obama administration has stated is their goal.