How the Digital Divide Developed in New Orleans

How the Digital Divide Developed in New Orleans

Date: 5 Jul 2012 | posted in: Media Coverage, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Poynter, July 5, 2012

Come September when changes at The Times-Picayune take effect, not only will New Orleans become the largest city without a daily newspaper, its residents will likely become some of the most disconnected in the country.  New Orleans lags behind the rest of the U.S. when it comes to broadband Internet service connections, according to an investigative report produced by the nonprofit journalism organization The Lens in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. About half of Louisianans subscribe to broadband services while the national average is 60 percent. Those who do subscribe to broadband Internet service tend to be white and in higher income brackets, the report shows.

New Orleans is one of the most digitally divided cities in the country. The Lens’ report contains a map that shows wide swaths of the city where broadband Internet access is not prevalent, meaning people in these parts aren’t as likely to get the news that The Times- Picayune will produce via its new digital products. The gaps are due in part to affordability, but they are also due to policy decisions made by lawmakers in the state that minimize competition, which in turn helps keep prices of broadband artificially inflated and out of reach for poorer residents, media access activists say. Telecom companies in Louisiana have also successfully blocked municipally-owned broadband networks, networks built by local governments that offer cheaper, faster Internet service.

Satellite is not an option for most people because of the lag-time it takes for signals to bounce from one computer, up to a satellite in the sky, to another computer, said Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for local solutions to sustainable community development. The limitations make it impossible to use satellite to make VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone calls or gaming, he said.

“There are technical limitations on satellite that make it ridiculously inferior,” Mitchell added. “We have been unable to identify anyone who has purchased satellite services when they have a choice of DSL or cable. It just can’t be compared.”


Sperry isn’t the only person worried about the derivative effects of the newspaper’s decision.

Mitchell, of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said it is hard to know how many people who don’t have broadband are paying for a subscription to the newspaper or regularly read it outside the home.

“Those people tend to have other priorities,” he said. “What concerns me more is that most of the news that is generated in cities comes from the newspaper and cutting back the schedule like this shows that the newspaper is struggling. That’s worrisome because it means fewer investigations, which generally means that poor people get screwed more.”

Also fearing that more newspapers will follow The Times-Picayune’s example, Mitchell said he sees an impending “golden age of corruption” because fewer watchdogs will be holding public officials accountable.

When asked what, if any, response local elected officials might have to severe cutbacks at The Times-Picayune, a city spokesman referred Poynter to the Louisiana Technology Council. The council is an association of large companies formed to address the technology component for the New Orleans’ economy; a phone call to the president of the council was not immediately returned.

Mitchell said one way to make broadband more accessible and affordable in New Orleans is by figuring out how to build a municipal network connecting libraries, schools, and other public facilities. “Libraries are the first place to improve connectivity,” he said. “Taxpayers are paying too much for too little. Taxpayers and cash-strapped school districts shouldn’t be overpaying for these services through government contracts awarded to private companies.”

Read the full story here.