America is at risk of falling behind in the digital world. A new report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (the creators of Sesame Street), Rutgers University and New America notes that middle and low income families aren't keeping up when it comes to computers, broadband, Wi-Fi and Internet access in the U.S.
While 94 percent of the U.S. public is connected and 91 percent of the poor have Internet access, the researchers conclude that there's a growing problem with citizens being "under-connected." In many cases, this translates into a single Internet-connected computer or smartphone in the household or slow service.
All of this makes it more difficult for adults to conduct business or obtain health and medical information. Yet it also impacts children and their ability to learn. Vikki Katz, a Rutgers University scholar and co-author of the study, notes that poor connectivity impacts "the kinds of things that help families get by and the kinds of things that help families get ahead."
Although many initially viewed the Internet as a way to span the so-called digital divide and raise education and income levels, it's increasingly clear that today's broadband is more like a frayed rope bridge straddling a deep canyon. Knowledge and skills shortages are now a chronic problem for U.S. businesses looking to compete in the digital economy -- and IT is often at the center of this troubling equation.
Yet it isn't only the poor who are taking a hit. The U.S. now ranks 24th in Internet speed worldwide, according to content delivery network firm Akamai. Incredibly, Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia rank higher. And let's not even delve into rural areas of the U.S., where broadband is still nothing more than a pipe dream. Although the FCC's Connect America Fund program is moving forward, it alone cannot solve the problem.
Amid a deeply divisive political environment, Congress and states need to focus on how to expand broadband access to all so that the underserved don't wind up becoming the completely disenfranchised. In addition, industry needs to think about how it can play a role in supporting and building out broadband—including boosting speeds to keep the U.S. competitive. Kudos to Google and its Fiber project, which is already rolling out free fast Internet connectivity to those living in low-income households.
Here's the deal: a lack of investment in broadband now will very likely translate into a diminished ability to compete (and far fewer customers) in the not-too-distant future.