Last Monday night, Mark Zuckerberg published a post announcing Facebook’s new initiative to bring Internet access to the developing world. The blueprint for internet.org mapped out how Facebook and a host of phone company allies might connect an additional 5 billion people online through more affordable access, increasing data efficiency, and investing in local business infrastructure. It came with a video that depicted IRL social interactions in developing countries, along with a soundtrack cut from a JFK speech and soft, inspirational piano tones.
As the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal deftly pointed out, no one can call this ignoble, or unreasonable, even. Simply put, increased Internet access is a good idea—though the other message Facebook was trying to sell, the one that equated the company with peace and progress, was hokey at best. But there’s another facet of Internet access that Internet.org does not address, and that’s Internet inequality right at home, in cities that otherwise rank as some of the most "connected" places on the planet.
New York City is already well-known for its ample (and growing) income inequality. But on Wednesday, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer put out a report showing that the city’s public schools and libraries vary widely when it comes to its broadband speeds.
The report revealed that over 75% of New York City schools had maximum download speeds of 10 megabits per second, 100 times slower than the 2020 goal outlined by President Obama in his National Broadband Plan. Meanwhile, 40% of the city’s public libraries had download speeds slower than 4 megabits per second—the minimum required for "watching video lectures and other forms of online learning." And—surprise!—the schools with the slowest connections were clustered in low-income neighborhoods in the south Bronx and North Brooklyn.
Outside of New York City, some 60 million Americans aren’t connected to the Internet, and inequality persists on racial and economic lines. As the New York Times highlighted earlier this week, a 2011 Commerce Department report showed that 76% of white American households had Internet access, compared to 57% of African American households.
Jen Schradie, a doctoral candidate studying social media and social movements at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg after his announcement, has done research on the public library system in Oakland and what that means for "digital democracy." Schradie points out that for people without Internet in their homes, libraries often limit you to an hour, or half online. "And then of course once you get a computer, you might have speeds that make it feel like it’s 1999," Schradie says.
"For those of us have digital connectivity 24/7, it’s hard for us to imagine not to Yelp a restaurant or Google Maps a location," Schradie adds. "But if we start to think, if we wanted to do those things and didn’t have a gadget, where would we go?"
Schradie points out that not being able to Yelp a brunch place isn’t the end of the world. Putting aside for a moment the fact that the entire economy of online content depends on production hours spent at a computer, on a more basic level, signing up for Obamacare or applying for a job often requires some form of online registration.
Public libraries face major problems like constant budget cuts and underfunding, but some initiatives from the tech world have tried to solve aspects of the inequality problem at home. Google’s super high-speed initiatives in the Kansas City (in both Kansas and Missouri) metro areas provide a good example, with fiber giving residents Internet connection speeds roughly 100 times faster than the average American at 1 gigabit, or 1,000 megabits, per second. Still, Google employees encountered some of the same problems expressed in the New York City report while they were canvassing underserved areas—they found many residents lacked access to the Internet altogether.
Stringer’s Internet access report called for a municipal fiber network and more funds from the city to address inequality in one of the most connected global hubs on the planet, which goes to show that "inequality" doesn’t solely take place in the rice paddies of Facebook’s promotional tools. For everyone’s long-term sustainability and profit, it’s important that we pay attention to why structural deficits persist in our own backyard.