Bridging the Digital Divide with Raspberry Pi

By March 3, 2012New Media

Raspberry Pi, a  computer that costs only £22 and sold out within hours of its launch in Britain, makes computers more affordable than ever. So does the $35 Aakash tablet being produced in India. Unfortunately, cheaper devices do not translate into cheaper internet access, especially for broadband here in the United States.

While the cost of computers has plummeted over the years, the cost of broadband internet access has remained relatively constant. The United States doesn’t track data on the average cost of broadband internet, so researchers from Northwestern University decided to find out for themselves. According to their 2010 study, the price of high speed internet between 2004 and 2009 dropped only 3-10 % on average. Compare that rate to the price decrease for computers in the fourth quarter of 2008, which alone saw a 14.3% drop in prices!

For the majority Chicagoans, broadband options are limited to only a few expensive choices. Even though Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced a new program that will offer reduced rates for high speed internet to low-income Chicago Public School students, nearly 40% of Chicago citizens lack access to broadband in their homes. While citizens can access the internet by using publicly available computers or WiFi at all branches of the Chicago Public Library system, cuts introduced by the mayor will reduce most libraries’ hours in 2012.

In order to improve the quality of broadband access in their communities, some city leaders have chosen to directly get involved in the market. Chattanooga, Tennessee invested in its own fiber-optic network to become the first city in the United States to offer internet speeds of 1 Gpbs. To put this speed in perspective, 1 Gpbs is about 172 times faster than the average U.S. broadband connection. While the price of entry-level service (at 30 Mbps up/down) is high–$57.99 per month– households could share their internet connections without experiencing much slowdown. Indeed, with such a fast connection, individuals could launch their own web businesses on the same connection they use to stream Netflix instantly.

Is publicly-subsidized broadband a viable option to not only help bridge the Digital Divide, but spur economic development? Is it realistic from both from an economic as well as political perspective? How can broadband internet become a reality for all people, not just the well-off? Unfortunately, these questions aren’t likely to be resolved any time soon. But we should very well watch how communities are beginning to address some of these matters on their own.