Survey of online access finds digital divide

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Wireless is on the rise. Nielsen predicts that by the end of 2011, one in two Americans will own a smartphone. That means a lot of jockeying for space on the airwaves. This is part of a special report by Bloomberg Government in the latest isssue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Bloomberg's Megan Hughes reports. (Source: Bloomberg)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 11:10 PM

A first-of-its-kind federal survey of online access found that Americans in lower-income and rural areas often have slower Internet connections than users in wealthier communities.

The data, released Thursday by the Commerce Department, also found that 5 to 10 percent of the nation does not have access to connections that are fast enough to download Web pages, photos and videos.

Compiled in an online map that is searchable by consumers - assuming they have a fast enough broadband connection - the survey seems to confirm that there is a digital divide, something experts had suspected but lacked the data to prove.

Extending access to high-speed Internet is one of President Obama's priorities. He has outlined an $18 billion plan to blanket 98 percent of the nation with high-speed mobile broadband connections over five years.

But some experts were disappointed with the study, which was based on advertised maximum speeds submitted by companies such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. The Commerce Department didn't test the speed data, and many experts complained that the survey lacks pricing information, which would enable better comparisons of service across regions.

"Price is one of the most important variables to have," said S. Derek Turner, policy director of the public interest group Free Press. "And real speeds are important because it shows whether companies are really giving people what they are paying for."

Still, industry watchers praised the map - which will cost $200 million over five years, funded by the federal economic stimulus program - for shedding light on business practices that have long been murky. Companies closely hold information about where they operate, but the map discloses which kinds of services are available - cable, fiber, DSL and wireless - down to the census block level. It will be updated every six months.

"The national broadband map shows there are still too many people and community institutions lacking the level of broadband service needed to fully participate in the Internet economy," said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information.

Researchers said the map will be an important tool for understanding which populations have access to high-speed Internet. "If you are an urban developer or are trying to do policy or subsidize users in an area for broadband, you were really doing that without a lot of detailed information," said Shane Greenstein, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The telecom and cable industries say that they are working to provide high speeds across the country but that the effort takes time.

Speed matters, experts say, because consumers with better Internet connections can be more productive and get more out of the Web. Generally speaking, a user needs a data speed of at least 5 megabits per second to smoothly watch a streaming YouTube video.

Obama has said that networks with at least 10 megabit-per-second download speeds are key to competing economically with countries that have cutting-edge Internet services, such as South Korea and Germany.

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