Antonio Reyes and Julian Rosas grew up together in California’s San Fernando Valley. Now 17 and seniors in high school, the two friends are beginning to fill out college applications. Antonio wants to be a pediatrician, while Julian is considering computer engineering.
But Antonio has one distinct advantage: He has high-speed Internet access at home. Julian – – whose family can’t afford a connection – – can only get online at school, when one of his working parents can drive him to the library, or at a local youth center, the Youth Speak! Collective, where I met the teenagers. The collective is a nonprofit organization that works to empower “at-risk” youth.
The restricted Internet access makes doing homework and applying for colleges especially difficult for Julian. “It kinda sucks,” he says. “I can’t go online anytime I want. I have to work twice as hard just to turn something in.”
Julian is one of millions of offline Americans who now have to work harder to function in an online world. According to the Census Bureau, more than 16 million Californians lack a high-speed connection. Whether because people can’t afford a computer or high-speed Internet, don’t have the training and skills to navigate the Web, or have no broadband options in their community, the digital divide – – the gap between the Internet haves and have-nots – – is glaring.
Connected folks can’t remember what it’s like not to check the weather in seconds, order a book from Amazon, or answer a nagging question using Wikipedia. In the United States and beyond, we demand constant connectivity to participate economically, socially and politically. Yet we’ve taken few steps as a nation to ensure everyone can meet this demand. Yes, the federal government’s E-rate program, which pays for school and library Internet connections, has been in place for years. But this is a far cry from making Internet access affordable and available to all Americans.
Sadly, we’re operating in a two-tier society, where lack of Internet access is compounding issues of poverty and social injustice. More than 40 percent of all U.S. homes are not connected to the Internet or use slow “dial-up” technology, according to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau survey.
Just between Julian and his friends, the difference a high-speed connection makes is astounding. Both Julian and Antonio have family living outside the United States. Antonio easily chats online with his relatives in Nicaragua several times a week.
On the other hand, the only chance Julian gets to talk to his family in Mexico City is while he can use the computer at school, or during limited hours at the library or youth center.
The Internet has offered young people an unprecedented ability to innovate, create, and circumnavigate the closed doors of the established media and entertainment industry, allowing them to churn out original content by the minute. Rafael Cazares, another 17-year-old I met at the Collective in Pacoima, has been captivated by Anime videos and is now making his own.
“I got into those, and I right away started using Windows Media Player and started making my videos and posting them [on YouTube],” Rafael says. “Even though I have one subscriber, who is my friend, it’s worth it because I’m just learning more to maybe pursue a career in making videos.”
“Life is not like the old days,” Rafael says, because everyone relies on the Internet. “If you’re curious about something and you want to know about it, go to Google, type it down and it’s there.”
Listening to Rafael, Julian says quietly, “It sounds fun… As for me, I have to go to the library and just look for the book, which is harder.”
Seventeen-year-old Jorge Martinez, who says he’s fortunate to have high-speed Internet at home, echoes Julian’s thoughts. “Everything revolves around the Internet and things will continue to revolve around the Internet,” he says. “I could send you a message and you could be across the world and you’d get it in seconds. Technology is just … wow.”
Along with using the Internet to learn guitar online, Jorge has chatted with people across the globe, which he says has expanded his worldview. Recently, he met a Kuwaiti through an online game.
“I asked, ‘What time is it over there?’ Jorge said. “And he told me the time difference. And I asked if he ever saw U.S. soldiers and he said ‘Yeah, they wave all the time.’ It was kind of interesting. I had in my head that everyone there didn’t really like [U.S. soldiers].”
Noemi Rodriguez, who teaches all four teens in a college-credit sociology class at the Youth Speak! Collective, said it upsets her when one of her students doesn’t have Internet access. And not just because it is harder for them to do their homework.
“A lot of the material online, like independent newspapers, I find it better than what you find in the stores,” she said. “You watch the news and every channel is the same thing over and over again. The youth need to be aware of different ideas and different beliefs.”
But until we get Julian and millions of others connected, we’re relegating much of our population to the bottom of the barrel – unable to read, watch and listen to what the rest of us have at our fingertips. Without Internet access, Julian’s computer engineering prospects are a distant dream, and low-paying, low-skilled work a likely reality for this soon-to-be-graduate. The message we’re sending to our young people is tragic.
The detrimental social and economic effects of a partially connected America are already beginning to show. As the economy spirals, America’s ability to maintain a leading edge and stay competitive will continue to wane if the digital divide persists. The birthplace of the Internet, the United States now ranks 22nd in world rankings of broadband adoption, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
Building a truly connected America is possible. Already, President-elect Barack Obama has some good ideas. He’s made widespread broadband deployment a major component of his technology agenda; his platform pledges to achieve this goal through reforms such as better use of the nation’s wireless spectrum.
At the same time, a growing alliance of public interest organizations and industry groups are banding together through a national initiative called InternetforEveryone.org to push the new administration to act on Obama’s promises. The coalition is holding its first public town meeting Dec. 6 in Los Angeles to discuss how to get open, fast and affordable Internet to all Americans. (Full disclosure: Free Press, the nonprofit media reform group for which I work, is part of this initiative.)
For his part, Rafael has his own ideas about the future of the Internet.
“It would be great if they created a worldwide Wi-Fi, where you have your laptop and you can access the Internet without having to have the modem connected to your computer,” Rafael said. “And [the government should] lower the price on laptops and computers so everyone can get one.”