Closing the Digital Divide with Public Wi-Fi

Closing the Digital Divide with Public Wi-Fi


In addition to the in-home wi-fi networks we use to stream programming, surf the web and more, as of this month there are also over 300k cable-provided wi-fi hotspots nationwide. Cisco has predicted that by 2017 we will have an average of five wi-fi enabled devices per person.

The strain on available spectrum is already being felt. When you battle sluggish Internet in a crowded coffee shop or airport, it’s a result of spectrum crunch. When you see the dreaded “buffering” message when you’re trying to stream Netflix between the hours of 7-9pm aka Internet Rush Hour, it’s spectrum crunch. There are just so many devices, many utilizing bandwidth-hungry applications, that wi-fi resources are becoming dangerously congested. This is particularly true of the public wi-fi access points.

One reason we much find a solution is because public wi-fi access points are critical to closing the digital divide, which African Americans disproportionately find themselves affected by. In a recent PEW study only 80 percent of black adults reported using the Internet regularly compared with 87 percent of white adults. When it came to having access to high-speed Internet, only 62 percent of African-Americans had a broadband connection at home compared with 74 percent of white Americans.

In contrast to Internet use and broadband adoption, blacks and whites are equally likely to own a cell phone of some kind, and also have identical rates of smartphone ownership.  This makes ensuring public wi-fi has the spectrum needed to provide unencumbered access vitally important.  African Americans who don’t have broadband at home, would then be able to surf the web on their smartphones via public wi-fi access points, and thus be on the same digital footing as their white counterparts.

Innovators are not going to stop wi-fi enabling their inventions and we are not going to stop trying to log-on, so eliminating congestion on public wi-fi is not only good because it continues to spur innovation and growth, but it is one more way to help close the digital divide.