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Examining The Broadband Divide In D.C.

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John Dunbar, project director for the Investigative Reporting Workshop, spoke to WAMU about the workshop's investigative project examining high-speed internet adoption about the D.C. area.
Rebecca Cooper
John Dunbar, project director for the Investigative Reporting Workshop, spoke to WAMU about the workshop's investigative project examining high-speed internet adoption about the D.C. area.

The four-month study examined broadband internet subscriptions in D.C. as well as 29 nearby counties and independent cities, including some rural areas. Reporters found that although at first glance, broadband internet access across the region seems robust, one-third of census tracts examined have broadband subscription rates below 40 percent.

"There are huge swaths of the region, big sections of D.C. in particular, where the subscription numbers were really quite low," says John Dunbar, project director of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Reporters found that although at first glance, broadband Internet access across the region seems robust; one-third of census tracts examined show non-adoption rates at 40 percent or higher.

Every single area studied, however, had some form of broadband internet service available. "The problem wasn't really about access, it was about adoption," Dunbar adds.

The single biggest characteristic of the areas where broadband internet subscriptions were low was income level, according to the study. For census tracts subscribing to broadband at a rate of 60 percent or lower, median incomes are $69,000 or below. For those tracts where the subscription rate is 80 percent or more, the median household income is $106,000.

"There's no question the new digital divide is about income," Dunbar says. "You could can stretch that and say it's really about affordability. The most striking, consistent characteristic among people who don't adopt is lower income."

The work in the study also somewhat debunks arguments that the increased use of smart phones is a substitute for broadband internet access, says Dunbar. "I think there's this general sense that it's ok if people don't adopt at home because they're getting what they need through smart phones, and that's just not the case," Dunbar says. "They're absolutely not an acceptable substitute for a home connection. You can't apply for a job online with a smartphone, you can't do research for a school paper with smart phones.

"And increasingly, seeing these data limits that don't provide enough bandwidth for people to be able to do what they'd like," he adds.

The data calls attention to difficult policy issues that will need to be solved with regard to broadband adoption, Dunbar says, because increasing access hasn't necessarily evened the playing field.

"In the past, the issue's always been about access. That's an easy argument, because we can always provide more pipes," says Dunbar. "The real problem though is about cost, which brings up a much more difficult, stickier policy problem."

Options for helping people afford broadband access range from "some sort of massive government intervention to bring in more competition into the broadband markets," says Dunbar, or "somehow subsidize people so they can get access.

"Otherwise you're going to see this gap persist in a way that's not solvable the way the old access issue was solvable," says Dunbar.

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