For many caught on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, reality is under suspicion of being a simulation, a dream deferred.
In one-stoplight rural towns and urban pockets across America, internet connections are dark with low broadband subscription rates. According to the US Census Bureau, cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Macon, Georgia, have broadband subscription rates less than 50% and a median income of less than $25K.
In 1992 Geoffrey Moore argued in his tech book, “Crossing the Chasm” that it is particularly challenging for a technology to cross from “early adopters” to the “early majority”, because both segments possess different characteristics (dreamer vs. pragmatist) and expectations for technology. New high-tech ventures must reach “critical mass” of diffusion and adoption to self-sustain. But since technology spreads virally through the sequential hand-offs of these consumer segments, success is crucial in these early stages.
To build a harmonious society, I would argue Crossing the Digital Divide is no easier than Crossing the Chasm that Moore described. Today, two huge walls of water stand across each other like Moses’s parted Red Sea, representing the gap in equity between those who have access to internet and computers and those who do not. In that gap is a dry seabed, where an orphaned tribe of Digital Natives is attempting to make its way to the opposite shore of Digital Inclusion, before they get engulfed by the Data tsunami (the expectation that with the rise of connected devices and internet of things people will generate at least 4.3 exabytes of data in their lifetime).
Historically, the army of chariots chasing these orphaned Digital Natives have been ISPs including cable and mobile operators, charging high prices for data speeds considered sluggish and medieval by European and global standards.(According to digital traffic company Akamai , U.S. ranks 17th in world re: connection speeds) However, a new miracle-worker is upsetting the apple cart of the Big Four. He is not descending from Mount Sinai, sun burnt with a long goatee and two stone tablets, but rather he is a technology – WiFi. At first friend to the Big Four, Wi-Fi is emerging as saboteur, as the 5th carrier. Wi-Fi was unlicensed 5GHZ frequency to which mobile operators diverted traffic off their 3G/4G networks to unwind congestion from bandwidth hogs. In fact, according to Cisco Systems Inc.’s Visual Networking Index, in 2013 wireless operators offloaded 45% of all mobile data traffic onto a fixed network using Wi-Fi/femtocell technology. And by 2018 Cisco predicts that percent will be even higher. Most of the internet will be powered by Wi-Fi.
Enter the Wifi Wars, the Wifi People
In the future, Wi-Fi could be the bridge technology to closing the Digital Divide, serving as a great platform for innovation at the bottom of the pyramid in underserved communities. As a result, an arms race between the cable and telephone companies is intensifying over Wi-Fi as it is the “new black”, the new digital oil to acquire and retain customers. Major cable companies have teamed up to provide Wi-Fi roaming for their customers. Time Warner, Comcast, Bright House Networks, and Optimum cable all allow their cable subscribers to traverse each other’s cable Wi-Fi networks by selecting the “CableWiFi” service on their connected device. Google, a new entrant to the telecommunications game, launched a wireless service, piggybacking on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s network, which can also make calls over Wi-Fi spots lit up in Google Fiber-hoods. Facebook acquired Whatsapp which eventually will be able to offer free services like free calls over Wi-Fi. Many will be able to “build their own prosperity” using the free Internet to start or grow a business.
Low income people and especially minority populations depend on mobile devices. In order to “jack in” to the internet without a hardwired fiber solution, they have to send a wireless signal. So having Wi-Fi they can use on-the-go is an effective way of keeping living expenses down. Because it is open source for anyone to use and barriers to entry are low, any entrepreneur can bring low-cost wireless products and applications to market.
To cross the Digital Divide, these orphaned Digital Natives, or “Wi-Fi people”, must focus their innovation on using fewer resources to generate the critical mass of social proof. Until their creativity establishes a beachhead of critical mass of customers within their extended peer groups who can provide credible references, they will be stuck in the divide. Learning to manipulate code by memory will be a prerequisite for survival in the Wi-Fi wars. Digital literacy and coding must be in one’s DNA to control the software of their destiny; whether it is to do homework, fill out applications for jobs, create a killer-app, or apply for social benefits. There is equal opportunity for everyone to become literate in these technologies so that they are creating #digital futures and not only consuming content.
The FCC government is helping with increased e-rate funding which provides internet access at schools. But the money goes to schools, not home Internet access, and approximately half of low-income homes nationwide lack proper Internet service. Thus the next opportunity is providing public Wi-Fi, allowing many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. Chicago public libraries are lending out hotspots like books to help combat the city’s digital divide. Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio is accepting proposals to retrofit 10,000 existing payphones with WiFi hardware. Homeless people are being converted into walking Wi-Fi antennas with “I’m a 4G Hotspot” T-shirts as part of a “charitable experiment” by a New York ad agency. In Salton, California, yellow school buses are being repurposed at night in downtime as Wi-Fi mobiles crashing parking lots in welfare projects to keep disadvantaged students connected at home.
Although kids are bringing more technology to school in their pocket than NASA packed into the first shuttle that landed on the moon, access to cell phone usage is still limited and demonized in school. Thus, the potential of these students are falling short of reaching the moon. At school, students use tablets and the Internet to tap into a variety of educational resources, including self-paced lessons, but if availability to these technologies remain distant on the bike path home, the Data Tsunami will wipe them out. Therefore, local communities must leverage the rise of mobile technology and the capacity of Wifi networks to make learning more authentic and powerful for students to become the next generation of tech visionaries, policy influencers and money men. This is the only way, the Wifi people will clear a path through the sea of the Digital Divide on dry ground to an equitable future.