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The Real Digital Divide

President Obama's current plans might make it worse...

21Jul

Google Fiber has teamed up with the Housing and Urban Development department to be a source for Internet access under president Obama’s ConnectHome initiative. Google has shown a propensity to play fast and loose with the privacy rights of Americans in the past. Is Google Fiber the best fit for an initiative like this? Is a government program that provides high-speed broadband to the homes of economically disadvantaged Americans lacking a little vision?

ConnectHome is the latest Federal Government program to impact the way infrastructure is built and the speed at which data is transmitted and received. It is based on the disparity of race, age, gender, location and economic status. Last week, the president stated the disparity in these factors has created a ‘Digital Divide’ in the United States. The economic disadvantage of Americans who live in public housing is where Google has pledged to begin assisting HUD in closing the gap.

ConnectHome is a program that should have never been conceived. In the United States everyone should have access to affordable broadband internet. Unfortunately, building infrastructure in less populated areas is also less profitable. And remote areas or areas where broadband providers feel the economic situation will not bring enough revenue to cover the investment of digging, installing and building, also mitigates them from doing so. Therefore, the American taxpayer will be billed for what it will cost to bring broadband to the last 3%.

In their blog, team Google Fiber said some things that I like:

'We realize, though, that providing an Internet connection is just one piece of the puzzle. People can only take advantage of the many benefits of the web when they understand why it matters and know how to use it. That’s why we’ll also partner with ConnectHome and local community groups to develop basic computer skills training and create computer labs to host these trainings in each of our Fiber markets.' -Team Google Fiber

But basic computer skills won’t do what needs to be done for this program to succeed as defined by the objectives set last week.

The Real Digital Divide

President Obama, in his address on conquering the digital divide, seemed a little too convinced that making the technology available is the key to better economic status and more opportunity for those who do not have fast internet connections. But nothing could be further from the truth. Giving people Space Shuttles won’t make them Astronauts.

The real ‘Digital Divide’ is the disparity between content creators, and content consumers. If you want to provide disadvantaged people the ability to obtain better economic status and truly want them to have more opportunity, teach them to be content creators. Without an initiative that puts the priority on the importance of content creation and how to be a content creator before providing no-cost broadband connections, the program is designed to fail. People who haven’t been exposed to or don’t understand what makes the Internet ‘The Internet’, will migrate to content consumption. This will benefit big businesses like Netflix, Hulu and Google's YouTube. I’m not sure if the Tax Payer is interested in helping Ron Hastings get more Netflix subscribers, and I have not heard of anyone that was able to better their personal economic situation watching YouTube. However, if you can create compelling, educational or entertaining content and can build and sustain an oft visited YouTube channel, then it is absolutely possible to achieve the goals that this program has set for itself.

Ironically, providing some Americans with free Internet access at blazing speeds while other Americans suffer from paying for slower connections puts the Government at risk for violating the FCC’s net neutrality guidelines. While the user isn't paying for faster data, the cost has to come from somewhere. If the last-mile provider is providing speeds that are faster for some and not for others at the same price-point, that creates a non-neutral network. It’s a slap in the face to think the taxpayer will be footing the bill for both.

Finally, there are issues with privacy and with vision in this endeavour.

Privacy

Most Americans who have been using Google web and data services for years don’t understand the Google privacy policy. Even fewer have read the policy in its entirety. It is logical to assume that most ConnectedHome users will not understand privacy/cost trade-off. While some will not take issue with Google harvesting their personal data, some will. This raises concerns. How does the Government penalize a partner for violating the privacy rights of a ConnectedHome user, when it is the Government that approved Google to do what they do? If the Government requires Google to modify the Privacy Policy for ConnectedHome users, why does the Government treat the privacy of some Americans differently than the privacy of other Americans?

Vision

Americans should have access to broadband internet connections, period. Not just at home. Everywhere. If you are going to provide high-speed Internet for people, why would you limit that access to the home? In his address, President Obama talked about how wearables and mobile devices with broadband connections do great things for people on a daily basis. If that is the litmus test for success, then mobile broadband should be the means for delivery. It doesn't pass the test of common sense that opportunity and better economic prosperity can only happen at home. If Washington believes connections help people obtain better economic status, then it should provide them with the means to achieve better economic status where ever they are. If the Government is comfortable with the way Google handles the private data of Americans and is going to fund building infrastructure, then it should go with Project Fi not Fiber.

By funding wireless infrastructure in remote areas, other Americans can also use that infrastructure when they visit these areas. By making the requirement for infrastructure to be exclusively packet-switched, 100Mbit or faster, operational broadband aggregation at launch and other 4G requirements, then the President can establish his legacy as the guy who actually understands what 4G is. This will set the standard for what is expected from other wireless carriers. This would force carriers to put a priority on circuit to packet-switched conversion in currently deployed network infrastructure, resulting in an all-IPv6 network in the United States.

That is a program that would benefit every American.

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