Conquering the High-Speed Divide

Conquering the High-Speed Divide

by / August 8, 2002
By their very nature, many mobile technology applications have an exotic feel to them. Law enforcement agencies use mobile data systems to transmit mug shots and crime-scene video to officers in the field. Airborne firefighters use handheld computers to track the progress of a fast-changing wildfire, and then beam the coordinates to crews battling the blaze. There's a science-fiction quality to a lot of this stuff.

So it might be easy to overlook the fact that wireless technology also can help solve more fundamental issues, such as providing high-speed Internet access to those least likely to have it. This month's cover story examines how Portsmouth, Va., is using wireless LAN technology to link residents of the Westbury public-housing community to the Web. The new system allows the city's Redevelopment and Housing Authority to offer residents affordable broadband Internet connections without the expense of stringing network cable throughout the community.

Portsmouth may be the first jurisdiction to complete such a project, but it's unlikely to be the last. Government and industry representatives say wireless technology presents an attractive option for bringing low-cost connectivity to existing and renovated public housing projects. And similar initiatives are taking shape at housing projects in cities, such as Los Angeles and Boston.

For residents of these public-housing projects, wireless technology offers new hope for participating in the Internet Economy -- one they otherwise may not have. With monthly fees for broadband Internet access approaching $50 or more, high-speed connectivity is simply beyond the reach of many low-income families. On the other hand, wireless technology promises to deliver broadband access to public-housing residents for the price of adding wireless network cards to their PCs -- a one-time cost of about $50 to $100 apiece.

That's no small achievement, considering the magnitude of the issue. Providing Internet access to citizens on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder remains a significant concern for public policy-makers.

Although the nation as a whole is making great progress, low-income families continue to struggle to get online. Less than 40 percent of households earning $15,000 to $24,999 per year have Internet access, according to a report released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration earlier this year. The percentage jumps to nearly 80 percent for households making more than $75,000 annually.

So, although the report shows Internet use growing at a 20-percent clip nationwide since 1998, it also reveals that a broad number of low-income citizens remain disconnected from what has become a vital means of communicating and conducting commerce.

Wireless Internet projects such as the one undertaken by Portsmouth represent a fresh approach to solving that problem. By providing cost-effective, high-speed Web access to public-housing residents, wireless technology may help close one of the most stubborn portions of the digital divide.