Will Philly Close Digital Divide by 2006?

Philadelphia's CIO (I didn't know cities had those) announced that Philadelphia would complete their ambitious plan to cover 135 square miles with Wi-Fi. The project will offer free Internet access in public parks and discounted rates for low-income residents.

While the plan is a noble one and will offer a plethora of benefits to the residents of Philadelphia, I think it falls short of fully "bridging the digital divide" - which does exist. According to Jupiter's numbers, about 2.5 million households with an annual income of $15,000 to $30,000 had broadband access in comparison to more than 12 million households earning in excess of $75,000 annually.

First, there is already a lot of free access in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco. I can see nine access points from my flat, 43 at the nearest intersection, and three in the closest "garden" in Golden Gate Park near my home. Half of these are unencrypted.

Second, lack of computers in lower income families is an issue. Lower income households have access in public libraries, at school, etc., but not necessarily in their homes. Not only are computers expensive, but also a confusing and complicated purchase for a first time buyer. From this standpoint, organizations like Computers for Youth (www.cfy.org) based in New York are carrying the load in bridging this divide. Bridging this divide requires putting a computer in the home plus providing training and ongoing technical support.

Third, collecting payment is difficult even at a subsidized rate. Most ISP's require credit cards - a barrier for lower income families. With Internet access being a "nice to have" service, these bills are less likely to be paid when there is a cash shortfall than heat or water. By giving up this segment, Verizon comes across as magnanimous, but it's also likely a customer base they'd rather not serve.

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