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Access to fast communications—who really has it?

In the previous sections I have been emphasizing that, despite major benefits, there are also serious inequalities and destructive features of our dependence on electronic communications. Understanding this, and predicting where it is leading, is difficult, as fast electronic communications are a twenty-first century phenomenon. Isolation and poverty are interlinked with poor access to electronic technologies, and there are conflicts between the plus and minus aspects. Advantages of rapid communication are obvious, but systems as common as mobile phones and the Internet are not universally available, even in leading countries.

Marketing reports on the topic can be distinctly misleading as they always focus on the fastest systems available, and these are predominantly limited to major cities. Therefore, a claim that 90 per cent of the population has access to state-of-the-art high-speed sources is invariably distorted. The reality is that within large cities, 90 per cent of the socio-economic groups who are likely, and wealthy enough, to buy the fast products, may benefit. Further, fibre-optic links are definitely nonexistent in large parts of both the suburbs and countryside.

Radio and satellite coverage is equally patchy and the data rates fall very noticeably. For satellite systems, there is a further complication that the signals can only travel at the speed of light and this introduces transmission delays. They may be acceptable for speech, but definitely it is not ideal for fast data rate communication.

If one is walking in many areas of the UK (not necessarily remote parts), one will find that access to satnav systems are non-existent, as the mobile phone networks do not (and cannot) give complete coverage. The option of a satellite phone may help, but they tend to be large and lack many of the normal phone functions.

The losers without broadband access are immediately obvious, and are very clearly apparent from the statistics in the USA. The country is large, so broadband services are inevitably inferior in rural areas. Further, there are a limited number of cable companies, and this means they have expensive access contracts. So those who are poor or live in remote areas are penalized.

Further, they lose out on the services over the range of items from video on demand, online medical access, knowledge, databases, and tuition and classroom facilities. For the poorer members of US society, the quality of affordable electronic communication will be slow and inferior to that which we assume is the norm. Unfortunately, this is a situation that will only get worse (e.g. if they are forced to use online job applications). Therefore, when it comes to education and opportunity, there is a major separation of between those with money and those without. Recent surveys claimed that only four in ten of US households with incomes below $25,000 per year had wired Internet access. By contrast, the numbers were well over 90 per cent for those households above $100,000 per year. The US numbers were closely linked to ethnicity, with white Americans being some 50 per cent more likely to have the linkages compared with African American or Hispanic households.

Overall, nearly 30 per cent of Americans do not have wired Internet access. In part this is availability; in part it is because the smartphone alternative is cheaper. Nevertheless, operational speeds are lower and downloads of data can take ten times as long. There may also be cash penalties for large file downloads by phone. The pricing is not competitive as each of the different companies often controls one region, and can freely raise the price of fast service.

This is definitely a weakness of the US system. As for other countries, from Japan to Sweden, there is government control of pricing, and high-speed operation is taken up by many more customers.

The digital divide is therefore increasing in the USA. Not least as US surveys reveal that the time spent watching videos or playing electronic games (often simultaneously) was nearly double for the poorer children with a lower educational family background. In the UK a similar pattern exists, but the total viewing hours are somewhat smaller. Unfortunately, the problem may be worsening, and the situation will not change until there is a more educated population, who demand better services than just TV and video. The difficulties are leading to a potential disaster both for the individuals and the nations.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous, but in some ways are more damaging to health than the larger screen and keyboards of computers. Yet more surveys in the USA say teenagers are sending or receiving around 100 text messages per day, and actually send more than 2,000 per month. UK patterns are similar, with a total of some 1.4 billion text messages per month. This activity has hidden health implications of bent spines, strained eyesight, and wrist and thumb strain (which afflicts roughly 40 per cent of keen text users). Other phenomena include a rapid rise in the number of replacement thumb joint surgery (linked to texting) and text addiction, with psychological evidence for insecurity, depression, and low self-esteem. Such features are reported from all the major countries across the globe.

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