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Digital divide is wider than we think and America is no exception: Study

Steve Lohr | NYT/San Francisco 05 Dec 18 | 09:25 PM

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Ferry County in northeastern Washington spans more than 2,200 square miles of mostly forestland, rivers and lakes. And according to the Federal Communications Commission, everyone in the sprawling county has access to broadband internet.

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But that is not the reality experienced by the roughly 7,500 residents of this county, which is rich in natural beauty but internet-poor.

The county seat, Republic, has basic broadband service, supplied by a community cable TV company owned by residents. But go beyond the cluster of blocks in the small town, and the high-speed service drops off quickly. People routinely drive into town to use Wi-Fi in the public library and other spots for software updates, online shopping or schoolwork, said Elbert Koontz, Republic’s mayor.

“We don’t really have broadband coverage across the county," Koontz said. “We’re out in the woods."

A new study by Microsoft researchers casts a light on the actual use of high-speed internet across the country, and the picture it presents is very different from the FCC numbers. Their analysis, presented at a Microsoft event on Tuesday in Washington, suggests that the speedy access is much more limited than the FCC data shows.

Overall, Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, while the FCC says broadband is not available to 24.7 million Americans. The discrepancy is particularly stark in rural areas. 

Fast internet service is crucial to the modern economy, and closing the digital divide is seen as a step toward shrinking the persistent gaps in economic opportunity, educational achievement and health outcomes in America. In some areas with spotty service, children do homework in Wi-Fi-equipped buses or fast-food restaurants, small businesses drive to internet hot spots to send sales pitches and medical records are transported by hand on thumb-drive memory sticks. Accurate measurements on the reach of broadband matter because the government’s statistics are used to guide policy and channel federal funding for underserved areas.

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