Lost Highway

Jason Weiss
May 01, 2001
poll with wires

I didn't fail to see the irony when I first started looking into the digital divide. Up until a month ago, I was on the losing end of that divide—the gap between those that have access to networks of information and those that don't, like me. The last computer I'd owned was a Commodore 64 I used to play Frogger on back in 1985. I replaced my rotary phone with a touch-tone just two years ago. I'd managed to make it through four years of college without personal Internet access, without even a word processor. My academic survival depended on epic treks through snow and wind late at night to download some last-minute class notes at the computer lab, or hopping onto friends' PCs while they were sleeping. I finally broke down last summer and bought a computer of my own—a turtle-paced lemon with a 56Kbps phone line connection that shorts out the electricity in my house from time to time, but a computer nonetheless. This was it. I had bridged the divide and was cruising the Information Superhighway (albeit in the slow lane).

Was it really worth all the trouble? Jorge Schement and Richard Taylor, co-directors of Penn State's Institute for Information Policy, say that not only was it worth the trouble, but it was vitally necessary. "For democracy to function effectively, we need to communicate to make enlightened decisions. We have to gain information and share it with each other."

Schement and Taylor, these two gurus of the digital divide, are opposite sides of the same coin. Schement, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War from south Texas, speaks softly and deliberately. His focus is on socio-cultural issues in telecommunications policy. Taylor, an ex-lawyer and avid motorcyclist from Philadelphia, is as animated as Schement is laid back. He handles economics. Here in Carnegie Building, they've just finished up a teleconference call with colleagues at another university and the black, star-shaped unit they used to make the call is still lying on the middle of the table. Towering over the device on the top shelf of a bookcase is a silver radio mike, circa 1930. I've got my pencil in hand, eager to hear about telecommunications policy. But Schement is sitting back in his chair, calmly giving me a civics lesson and talking about the Pony Express, while Taylor is getting riled up about hardware: "Bit, bits, bits, bits, bits! And more bits! Faster bits!"

Schement compares government support of telecommunications networks to its investment in post roads in the 19th century. Both were efforts to connect geographically disparate parts of the country, to make it smaller. Like mailboxes, fiberoptic cable and high-bandwidth Internet access for all Americans at an affordable price, says Schement, is "fundamental to the principles of democracy. It will raise more opportunities for political participation, economic participation, and social participation."

But we're not talking about voting rights or freedom of speech or even social security. Is Internet access really a fundamental right of each American? "So much of the wealth of the country is now in some way connected with the transmittal of information," says Schement, "and so many Americans derive their livelihoods from information-related activities. It's as much a factor to the development of the U.S. in the 21st century as rural electrification was to the development of the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century. Electricity allowed so many things to happen that couldn't have happened without it, in the same way that access to these various networks allows a whole lot of things to happen."

gray and red wires plugged into black machine

In 1994 Schement was working as an adviser to the Federal Communications Commission when FCC Chair Reed Hundt walked into his office. "Why doesn't everyone have a phone?" he asked. This seemingly simple question spurred Schement to search California for answers and resulted in an FCC-backed paper—the first of its kind—titled "Beyond Universal Service." It concluded that the question wasn't just a matter of those without phones not wanting them. Instead, it suggested that a range of cultural, economic, and geographical differences need to be taken into account when thinking about access.

Schement's work with the FCC—along with a subsequent study of his sponsored by Bell Atlantic that looked at Camden, New Jersey—influenced Congress' groundbreaking Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Telecomm Act marked the first time the federal government recognized the digital divide. Its stated goal was equal opportunity of access to networks of information for all Americans. In other words, democratic participation in an information society. It wasn't good enough that industry and the upper and middle classes could log onto the Internet and do business online. America should be wired, the Act said. Everyone should at least have the opportunity to take part in the information society that we've become.

In 1950, 75 years after Alexander Graham Bell made his first call, half of all American households still didn't have telephones. Of the ones that did, half of those used party lines. Over the next 50 years, as more and more people installed phones in their homes, policy was adjusted accordingly. On the upper west side of Manhattan, for example, police call boxes were removed from street corners as the city became less willing to spend money on something that an increasing amount of people didn't need. The households that didn't get their own phone lines were now worse off: they now had no access to emergency call service. No fire. No ambulance. No police. "That's not democracy," says Schement.

Today, a half-century after the removal of call boxes from the streets of New York, over 93 percent of Americans have telephones. But that still leaves 20 million people without access to services like 911. Schement and Taylor's Institute for Information Policy is a hub from which they work on influencing state and national policy that aims to deliver on just such promises. Schement advised both Bill Bradley and John McCain on digital divide issues during their primary runs for president last year, and was invited to President Clinton's digital divide summit in December 1999. He's also worked closely at the state level. "Pennsylvania is an exemplar of what the rest of the country should do in terms of telephone policy," he says. As part of a contract that Harrisburg has with Bell Atlantic, a "warm" dial tone will be imposed on households that need it throughout the state. If you don't pay your phone bill, and so lose your telephone service, you'll still be able to call 911 in an emergency.

Like the phoneless of the 1950s, those who aren't wired for the right digital services today are lagging behind. For example, if the phone book starts being published only on the web, Internet access suddenly becomes a major issue.

numbered wires from wall

Rob Frieden, a telecommunications professor currently working with Schement and Taylor on a Ford Foundation study on universal service, doesn't like the media-hyped metaphor of a ubiquitous "Information Superhighway," because equal access has yet to become a reality in this country. He sees a network made up of information interstates, state roads, and dirt roads. In other words, while I now have Internet access, the phone lines I use to log onto the network don't compare to the cable modem my friend Steve uses. He can download large, complex documents and realtime video while I sit and watch the little globe in the upper right hand corner of my browser spin endlessly in hopes of being able to view grainy images and choppy movement. "The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," says Frieden, "is a true superhighway connected with broadband fiberoptics." So how do we get equal access out to the people who don't have it?

Guoray Cai pulls a map of Pennsylvania up on the computer screen in his office. It's crisscrossed with a tangled web of lime green and ruby red lines. The lines represent the network of copper wires and fiberoptics that various telephone, cable, and utility companies make available to their customers, who can use them to access the Internet. The lines—especially the green ones, which mean digital, and therefore faster and higher quality, service—are congested around the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The lines begin to disperse as they get farther away from the cities, but I can still see smaller clumps of green (though mostly red) around Scranton, Allentown, Erie, and State College. There aren't more than a few stray lines here and there in the blank white spaces of the more remote northern and western parts of the state. The map that Cai, from Penn State's School of Information Sciences and Technology, has on display is an overview of Pennsylvania's telecommunications resources. Cai maps accessibility: Where are the lines? Who is lacking them? Schement calls Cai "a real groundbreaker." He says that Cai's resource map system, the Pennsylvania Technology Atlas, "opened the door to enable us to ask these questions."

Cai points to the green lines on the computer screen again: the digital fiberoptic networks, the high-bandwidth promised land of existing telecommunications networks. By using speedy fiberoptics to access the Internet instead of, to use Frieden's term, dirt-road copper telephone wire—which gets slower as it gets farther from its source provider—private users can get crystal clear screen images and instantaneous downloads, businesses can conduct real-time teleconference meetings, and professors at University Park can see the reactions of their students in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at the same time. "Bandwidth," says Cai, "is an indication of mental space. You get a feeling of how far from a physical place you are. Even though we're farther from New York City than, say, Millersville, PA, in terms of cyberspace it feels like you're closer to New York because of the greater bandwidth that is available between the two nodes, New York City and University Park, than between here and Millersville. Files are easily downloaded from New York, and therefore the feeling of distance is reduced."

Cai's goal is to map the accessibility of telecommunications services in Pennsylvania, in both rural and urban areas, on both sides of the digital divide. "In order for people to interact with each other, you've got to have infrastructure. There is significant bias in terms of the location of infrastructure," says Cai. "We would think that telecommunications can remove disparity, but telecommunications is driven by business and requires investment, so the location is dependent mainly on profit potential." This usually means the city. "Elsewhere," he says, "most people are still using telephone wire to access the Internet."

So how do we bring digital networks from the city to the farm? One option is to use tax dollars to install digital switches and other equipment needed for high bandwidth capability in remote areas of Pennsylvania. But an industry-led move to wire the state would be preferable.

The role of the government, says Cai, shouldn't be to install technologies, but to create the demand for private companies to install the technologies themselves. "In most cases, regions of Pennsylvania do have profit potential. We just need to show the people how to use the information technology." He says this could be done through state-funded training programs and information sessions at public libraries and community centers. Once people see that they can shop, learn, and run their small businesses online, "this will increase their demand for access. We then show the telecommunications companies this existing demand, which will move them to provide services to these regions."

old used telephone

The Navajo reservation, in the four-corners region of the southwestern U.S., is bigger than Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined. It's also got about one-tenth the population. Its residents don't live in European-style clustered settlements. They're herders, and live scattered across the land, much of it desert. Navajos have the lowest phone penetration of any identifiable group in the United States: it hovers between 15 percent to 20 percent, while the national rate is over 93 percent. The culture of the tribe is communal, and so the few telephones that are available in this remote setting, especially the ones equipped with long-distance service, are shared between the clan members and treated as the common property of the tribe. It sounds nice, but at the end of the month, the question comes up: Who pays the phone bill?

Schement has been working as an adviser to the National Indian Telecommunications Institute for the past two years. "The reality of working with native concerns," he says, "is that outsiders can't just barge in. They're a sovereign nation." Schement experienced this first-hand when he was stopped at the border of the reservation by the Navajo government—he's not a tribe member, he's not getting in.

With this sort of seclusion, how are the Navajos supposed to maintain and expand their communications networks, which are run by the culture outside? For Schement, this is a case in which the six-year-old debate over telecommunications service and the digital divide has made a difference. "Prior to the Telecommunications Act and the conversation we're having right now in this country about the digital divide, the Navajo society would have simply lost their phones because of the strong sense of structure and loyalty within the clan. Service would have just been maintained at a very low level. But as digital divide discourse draws attention to populations without access, corporations with a sense of civic responsibility have begun to explore it." He cites U.S. West as a telephone company that has made attempts to adapt to its customer's culture instead of imposing its own. It is currently working on contracts with the Navajo tribe as a whole rather than with individual Navajo households.

Schement's work with minority groups like the Navajos has influenced the current Ford Foundation study that he, Taylor, and Frieden are working on. They are attempting to construct a new theory of universal service that Schement describes as "a radical departure from the state of things now." Their first goal is to coordinate the various aspects of the telecommunications industry—telephones, cable, broadband fiberoptics—into a system of government regulation. "All of the different networks are doing the same thing: delivering bits," says Taylor. "Why distinguish between them?" The two talk about the notion of one all-encompassing Network, rather than focusing on its individual components. "The question of access," says Schement, "is becoming a question of access to the network, period, rather than access to a particular area."

The new theory calls for individual choice in terms of basic service. "In a climate of abundance of channels, you should be able to choose a combination of services as your basic package," says Schement. He sees universal service as a menu rather than the provider of one service. The Navajo government can order basic phone service, while a high school library can subscribe to cable Internet access.

Schement and Taylor see the competition spurred by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a positive step towards increasing access. Part of their optimism stems from the notion that the newfound competitiveness throughout the industry will drive technological innovation, making access easier, especially in the still-emerging wireless technology sector.

Taylor, a former legal counsel to Time-Warner and current Trustee and Vice Chair of the Board's Research Committee of the Pacific Communications Council, which promotes development in Pacific Rim countries, says that "the economics are such that technology can be provided more cost-effectively. It could possibly be less of a burden to have a wireless device than a wired device." In other words, once technology permits, it could be cheaper for someone living in rural Pennsylvania to buy a cellular phone with a built-in Internet browser or a wireless laptop than for a phone company to run fiberoptic cables through the mountains in order to get that person wired.

black triangular Polycom sound station

"The rural sector," says Schement, "usually means a high cost of connectivity. This is the big problem. Imagine a bunch of households with a cable line strung between them. Now imagine these houses being 20 miles from each other—the cost gets much higher. The hopes of telecommunications policymakers is that wireless will overcome the limitations of geography. In the long run, the cheapest technology that can handle the most amount of traffic will win out."

But some households, and certain ethnic groups, are what Schement calls "beyond the market." For these groups, the digital divide is merely a reflection of the larger cultural divide in America. Many minorities' accessibility to information networks (or lack thereof) is indicative of their ethnicity and social status. The big question, says Schement, is, What makes access different for specific groups? Schement and Taylor have found that the digital divide isn't just a money issue but also a cultural issue. "In looking at minorities with low income, we see a variation in telephone access." Poor whites are more likely to have telephones than minorities of similar incomes. Says Schement, "All the way down to $5,000, whites are still more likely to have telephones."

The disparity has been attributed to what's known as the Trailer Park Theory. It goes like this: White poverty is rural, African-American and Latino poverty is urban. Rural populations are more likely to own property. Therefore, residents of rural areas can get credit and in turn qualify for goods and services: telephone lines, cable, and other utilities. Schement and Taylor don't buy into that theory. Schement interviewed residents and took surveys in Riverside County, California, a rural area where high levels of low-income Latinos live in trailers. There was still no difference—telephones had a lower rate of penetration with rural Latinos than they did with rural whites.

For me, it's hard to even imagine living without a telephone. "It's hard to imagine living without a telephone if it's a common value to have a telephone," counters Schement. One group he targeted during a 1998 study was low-income minorities living in urban areas without telephone service. Some mothers he spoke to said they had given up telephones and bought cable because cable is a supervisable entertainment. "This way, their kids can't talk to the outside world, which in some inner cities keeps them off the street." Schement notes, "Utility that we ascribe to certain technologies shows our cultural bias. We think of cable TV as a luxury. For other people it might be a necessity if the alternative, telephones, brings bill collectors and police and drug dealers with it. "Just because you're poor doesn't mean you don't have resources. It just means that your resources are different than others," Schement continues. He points to a 1998 study of Manhattan conducted by himself and Lakshman Yapa of the geography department. The two found that geography makes a difference in communications resources. Schement saw that Harlem is low in information technology. It has little Internet access beyond public libraries. Out of 200 video stores in Manhattan, Harlem has one. But it still has resources. Schement pulls out a map of Manhattan and points to a thick cluster of dots around the northern end of the island, where Harlem is located. "Twenty percent of all churches in Manhattan are in Harlem." These churches, he says, which act as community gathering places rather than solely as places of worship, are a valuable resource for its residents.

When Schement asked economically similar groups of whites, African-Americans, and Latinos their reasons for buying a computer, the results varied. The majority of African-Americans said "education of their kids." The majority of whites said "business and education." The majority of Latinos said "business reasons," even though Latinos have the most children, proportionally. "What this means," says Schement, "is that once the computer is brought in, its implementation depends on the type of particular household." And at this point in the history of telecommunications, households like those in Schement's study are redefining how families interact in time and space, a reaction to information networks in their lives. It's all happened before. When personal telephones first came into use in the 1950s, people were so used to public phone booths that alcoves built to mimic them were installed in the hallways of newly-built houses. But the ways in which Americans used and thought about the technology gradually changed, and they became more comfortable with multiple phones around the house, with talking on the phone in the bedroom or out in the open.

white satellite dish

The same process is happening with computers today. "Pull the roof off of the average suburban American home and it looks like a multiplex theater," says Schement. We're already beginning to adapt to the new technology. "American homes have been transformed to a node on the network. Before, homes had been the recipients of someone else's network. Not any more. This allows Americans to challenge other information sources that they couldn't before. And this leads to a differentiation of the home that we haven't seen before." And so after-dinner time gets divvied up between time for the kids to play video games and surf for MP3s and time for Mom and Dad to shop online and check their stocks. Meanwhile, furniture companies' marketing departments study households' computer usage in order to make better desks for new spatial arrangements in American homes.

I'm wondering what all of this means in terms of getting everyone wired. With middle-class whites on the have side of the digital divide and minorities and rural whites on the have-not side, won't a widening of the digital divide lead to a further widening of social and cultural differences in the United States? Schement points out that the differences between those who do have access vary widely in themselves. "We know that the interplay between changes in demography and changes in technology is profound. What we don't know are the outcomes. For instance, Richard's household has enough equipment in it to drive the destroyer I was on in the Navy, but its uses for it are far different from my household, since he's got two teenage boys and I've got an eight-year old." Schement looks across the table at Taylor and grins. "And some middle-class households have teenage kids who stay up until what? 3AM? playing on the computer shooting down airplanes?"

Taylor sighs resignedly. "So I've heard."

On the other end of the divide, technology is still making its presence felt in cultural expression. "With the exception of the destitute," says Schement, "even the lower rungs of the income ladder can still make some choices. Their problem is that they can have one thing but not another." He points to the subculture that formed around urban youths' use of beepers in the mid-1990s. This trend will come to dominate, he says: more and more specific uses of technology for particular subgroups of society that the larger population won't participate in, whether it's beepers and cell phones or late-night wargames.

Schement believes that, even though some have and some have not, even for the ones that have, "it's the same technology. But the technology doesn't produce a certain kind of behavior, it serves different kinds of behavior. The more different kinds of people we have, the more different kinds of behavior there are. The more technology changes, the more different permutations of use are discovered, and that makes the challenge of providing meaningful equal opportunity of access great in a society like ours."

Jorge Schement, Ph.D., is a professor of telecommunications and information policy in the College of Communications and co-director of the Institute for Information Policy, 208 Carnegie Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3066; jrs18@psu.edu. Richard Taylor, J.D., Ed.D., is the Palmer Chair Professor of Telecommunications Studies in the College of Communications and co-director of the Institute for Information Policy, 208B Carnegie Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1482; rdt4@psu.edu. Robert Frieden, J.D., is a professor of telecommunications in the College of Communications, 105C Carnegie Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-7996; rmf5@psu.edu. Professors Schement, Taylor, and Frieden are funded by the Ford Foundation. Guoray Cai, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Information Science and Technology, 516 Rider Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-4448; gxc26@psu.edu.

Last Updated June 02, 2021