In the United States, universal internet access has become a utopian goalpost, like universal healthcare or universal equality. As with those other ambitions, we've run into a big fat wall in our progress towards achieving it. One-fifth of the nation remains offline, missing out on crucial job opportunities, a thriving hub of modern culture, and YouTube videos about disabled pets overcoming adversity.
Over the weekend, The New York Times examined the years-long push by the Obama administration to get the country's online holdouts plugged into the internet. The focus was a recent Department of Commerce report, “Exploring the Digital Nation,” which quietly laid out the failures of Obama's drive to increase connectivity. Infrastructure improvements can get you part of the way, but some obstacles—particularly those pesky cultural and socioeconomic ones—are a bit tougher to surmount. The following numbers reveal rather bluntly the problematic state of the American internet.
It starts out rosy enough. 98 percent of Americans technically have access to the internet. And 90 percent have access to high-speed internet. That means there are 31 million Americans without high-speed internet access, and around 6 million Americans with no internet access at all right now.
But access is one thing, and actual connectivity is another. For the last five years, the percentage of Americans who are connected to the internet has plateaued at 80 percent. That's 63 million Americans that aren't using the internet. That's about where it was before Obama took office and spent $7 billion on internet infrastructure projects designed to bring broadband to more citizens. And indeed, the access is there, oftentimes, anyway. So why aren't folks plugging in?
48 percent of Americans without internet say they just don't want it. This group appears to be largely comprised of older people who would rather not learn to interface with a new technology, for one reason or another. That's understandable. When I'm old, I might not want to bother to learn to use the ocular implants that allow me to access the holonet everyone's using to share 3D cat pics with retinal movements, either.
More disconcerting is the next group: 28 percent of Americans say they can't afford the internet, and 13 percent say they don't have a computer good enough to get them online. That means that a full 41 percent of Americans that aren't online can't afford the internet. 26 million Americans can't afford the internet. That's a problem.
Unsurprisingly, it's minorities who are losing out. 76 percent of white households use the internet, while just 57 percent of black households do. As the report points out, this precipitates an ugly self-perpetuating cycle. Much of modern job-hunting occurs online, and many jobs can only be properly researched and applied for online. Without the internet, the already disadvantaged are disadvantaged further. Tale as old as time: folks with money get the tools to make more of it, the folks without are further marginalized. It's Dickens 2.0.
The problem is economics—the internet is still expensive; in my largely working class Brooklyn neighborhood, the best available internet comes from a painfully slow Verizon connection. It costs upwards of $50 a month. That's prohibitively costly; over the year, that's $600. That's a full month's rent.
And that's pretty typical. As of last year, the average cost of internet of any speed was about $40 a month across the US, according to a report from the White Fence Index. Compare that to South Korea, which provides its citizens with the fastest internet connections in the world—at a cost of $26 a month.
Much has been written about the digital divide, but not enough. There's a reason that the UN has declared the internet a fundamental human right—information access has long since joined the ranks of energy, food, water, and health care as a pillar of high-functioning modern society. That 26 million citizens of the wealthiest country in the world don't have it is deplorable.