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9/21/2006
06:29 PM
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Broadband On A Budget

High-speed broadband has finally overtaken dial-up Internet access. According to a recent report by JD Power and Associates, 56% of residential ISP customers are now using broadband connections for applications such as Googling for the latest on Cameron Diaz, viewing online videos, and blogging about their pet dogs'

High-speed broadband has finally overtaken dial-up Internet access. According to a recent report by JD Power and Associates, 56% of residential ISP customers are now using broadband connections for applications such as Googling for the latest on Cameron Diaz, viewing online videos, and blogging about their pet dogs' latest tricks. Actually, I'm surprised the number is so low.Judging from the number of tech toys that are planned for the coming holiday season--and the hopes that many vendors are pinning on a 2006 buying frenzy--it's clear that vendors expect that anyone who can afford a computer is, or should be, on something better than dial-up. But there are still many people who can't afford, or feel they can't afford, anything more than dial-up--and yet would in the end spend less money with a broadband connection than they're now spending on dial-up.

For example, consumer VoIP services such as Skype still offer free phone services over the Internet--at least, to other Skype users and (until the end of the year) to landline and mobile phones within the United States and Canada. That alone is a huge savings.

High-speed connectivity also saves time on research, allows access to free applications such as Zoho Writer and Gmail, and increases communications abilities by allowing immediate access to e-mail and instant messaging (so you can, for example, get right back to that HR person the moment he or she expresses an interest in your resume). The list is a long one.

Many longtime dial-up users still have the impression that dial-up is less expensive than broadband. In most cases, it isn't. In my area, for example, Verizon Wireless is offering speeds of up to 3.0 Mbps for $30 a month; a slower connection, up to 768 Kbps, can be had for $15 a month. This is equal to or better than the cost of a typical dial-up connection (I recently spoke to somebody who was still paying about $35 a month for their dial-up.) There are some costs involved in the initial purchase, of course, but recalcitrants have to be convinced of the long-term gain.

However, let's be realistic. Many of the remaining 44% of dial-up users are households that can't afford a broadband connection because it's hard enough for them to afford the rent each month and to keep the kids properly dressed and fed. The people in these circumstances--and especially the children--are quickly falling away from the kind of services and information that keeps the rest of us in the swim of the American mainstream. Want to find a job? Use the Internet. Teacher wants research done? Find it on the Internet. Need to find car insurance? A doctor? The nearest Legal Aid office? All the information you need is immediately at your fingertips--on the Internet.

A persistent connection to the Internet--and we're still talking broadband here--is vital if the children of these families are going to have a fair chance to compete in the classroom--and later, in the world at large. While some can find access to computers and the Internet through school programs, public libraries, and other facilities, that still puts these people way behind those of us who can sit down any time and immediately have access to the huge number of resources available online.

There are many solutions in the pipelines to provide high-speed Internet access to low-income people. Several companies are developing inexpensive computers, and many cities are working on free Wi-Fi zones. Several of these zones are working today. But time is of the essence, and we need to look to the IT community for innovative ideas that can address this issue. After all, we can't expect young people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they're walking around in their socks.

What do you think? Are there other ways to bring computing and the Internet to people who don't yet have access? Or do you think it's totally up to them to find their way to the digital dimension? Let me know.

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