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The high price of broadband is keeping people offline during the pandemic

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The high price of broadband is keeping people offline during the pandemic


“I had wanted to be online for years,” says the 65-year-old, but “I have to pay for my rent, buy my food—there were other things that were important.”

For as long as the internet has existed, there has been a divide between those who have it and those who do not, with increasingly high stakes for people stuck on the wrong side of America’s “persistent digital divide.” That’s one reason why, from the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to make universal broadband a priority.

But Biden’s promise has taken on extra urgency as a result of the pandemic. Covid-19 has widened many inequities, including the “homework gap” that threatened to leave lower-income students behind as schools moved online, as well as access to health care, unemployment benefits, court appearances, and—increasingly— the covid-19 vaccine, all of which require (or are facilitated by) internet connections.

Whether Biden can succeed in bridging the gap, however, depends on how he defines the problem. Is it one that can be fixed with more infrastructure, or one that requires social programs to address affordability and adoption gaps?

The hidden divide 

For years, the digital divide was seen as a largely rural problem, and billions of dollars have gone into expanding broadband infrastructure and funding telecom companies to reach into more remote, underserved areas. This persistent focus on the rural-urban divide has left folks like Marvis Phillips—who struggle with the affordability of internet services, not with proximity—out of the loop. 

And at the start of the pandemic, the continued impact of the digital divide became starkly drawn as schools switched to online teaching. Images of students forced to sit in restaurant parking lots to access free WiFi so they could take their classes on the internet drove home just how wide the digital divide in America remains. 

The Federal Communications Commission did take some action, asking internet service providers to sign a voluntary pledge to keep services going and forgive late fees. The FCC has not released data on how many people benefited from the pledge, but it did receive hundreds of complaints that the program was not working as intended. 

Five hundred pages of these complaints were released last year after a public records request from The Daily Dot. Among them was a mother who explained that the pandemic was forcing her to make an impossible choice.

“This isn’t just about the number of people who have lost internet because they can’t afford it. We believe a far greater number of people can’t afford internet, but are sacrificing other necessities.”

“I have four boys who are all in school and need the internet to do their online school work,” she wrote. Her line was disconnected despite a promise that it would not be turned off due to non-payment. “I paid my bill of $221.00 to turn my services on. It was the last money I had and now do not have money to buy groceries for the week.”

Other messages spoke of the need to forgo food, diapers, and other necessities in order to keep families connected for schoolwork and jobs. 

“This isn’t just about the number of people who have lost internet because they can’t afford it,” says Dana Floberg, policy manager of consumer advocacy organization Free Press. “We believe a far greater number of people … can’t afford internet but are sacrificing other necessities.”

According to Ann Veigle, an FCC spokesperson, such complaints are passed onto providers, who are “required to respond to the FCC and consumer in writing within 30 days.” She did not respond to questions on whether the service providers have shared reports or outcomes with the FCC, how many low-income internet and phone subscribers have benefited from the pledge, or any other outcomes of the program. 

The lack of data is part of a broader problem with the FCC’s approach, says Floberg, since former chairman Ajit Pai recategorized the internet from a utility, like electricity, back to a less-regulated “information service.” She sees restoring the FCC’s regulatory authority as “the linchpin” toward “equitable and universal access and affordability” of broadband internet, by increasing competition and, in turn, resulting in better service and lower prices.

Measuring the wrong things

It took Marvis Phillips three months of free internet, two months of one-on-one training, and two donated iPads—upgraded during the pandemic to accommodate Zoom and telehealth calls—to get online. And since the city ordered people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus, Phillips says the internet has become his “lifeline.”

“Loneliness and social isolation is…a social justice and poverty issue,” says Cathy Michalec, the executive director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, the nonprofit that helped Phillips connect as part of its mission to serve low-income seniors. As with other solutions to isolation—bus fare to visit a park, tickets to a museum—internet connections also require financial resources that many older adults don’t have.

Tech

The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city

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JA22 cover


Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.

As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.

To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.

Read the full list here.

The Urbanism issue

The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras. 

The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:

– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.

– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.

– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.

– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever


Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build. 

Quayside 2.0

The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat. 

In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this. 

 “To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech


What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language. 

Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.

Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).

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