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How the digital divide developed in New Orleans & what that means

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 during 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.

Year have home Internet access

Only 43 percent of Americans who make less than $25,000 a year have home Internet access, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study. “It's clear that, in the midst of moving toward digital news, many people all in all need access to information that doesn't require a computer,” Jesse Hardman writes in the Columbia Journalism Review.

This is especially true in New Orleans, where half the residents make less than $35,000 a year and The Times-Picayune will emphasize digital products, Hardman states. The concern should not be about a business decision, “however on how the citizens of New Orleans are going to get important information if they are not online,” he writes.

Poorer, more African American areas of New Orleans, just as the Lower 9th Ward, have broadband subscription rates between 0 and 40 percent during those living in more rural parts of the area account for subscription rates between 0 and 20 percent, Matt Davis writes in The Lens.

It's harder to profit from the investment in broadband infrastructure in rural areas where fewer residents live furthermore apart. Among poorer residents, broadband - and even newspaper subscriptions - tend to be luxuries for job seekers or people who are nevertheless trying to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina near seven years ago. The Picayune's decision to print only three days a week means fewer newspapers will get passed around local barber shops, beauty salons, cafes and convenience stores — places where many people who don't have broadband access at home often go to exchange information about what's happening in their neighborhoods.

The same time

At the same time, private business executives and public officials seem to be in denial. They aren't planning for a diminished newspaper presence and are holding out hope that a hero will swoop in and buy The Times-Picayune, although the paper isn't for sale. They as well continue to support policies that favor the telecom industry to put it more exactly than working to make broadband more affordable.

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 partly to affordability, nevertheless they are as well 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 as well successfully blocked municipally-owned broadband networks, networks built by local governments that offer cheaper, faster Internet service.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has decried the Times-Picayune reductions, refused $80 million in federal grants aimed at expanding broadband to poor, rural areas of the state. The money was part of $7 billion set aside for broadband expansion in President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Governor said accepting the money would have opened the door to too much federal interference in the state and would have undermined private business; The Lens reported that the decision to scuttle the plan was a favor to private interests that supported Jindal's gubernatorial campaign.

Representatives with both Cox and AT&T U-verse said they did not expect the Picayune's decision to have an impact on their broadband businesses. They as well counter claims about a lack of competition in the market, saying people can as well subscribe to satellite Internet services provided by competitors like DISH Network and DIRECTV.

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.

Todd Smith, a spokesman with Cox Cable based in Atlanta, told Poynter that the Picayune's decision is part of a trend of more and more people moving applications online and more clients using broadband in more ways. The company offers several different tiers, with escalating price points based on a customer's use.

The more people use broadband

"The more people use broadband, the more likely they will need a higher service tier with higher speeds," Smith said. "That will continue especially with The Times-Picayune driving people to broadband and other apps that are driving people there."

Sue Sperry, a spokeswoman with AT&T U-verse, said the special pricing of $19.95 a month is to entice people who have never had broadband service. Broadband users who want or need faster speeds, nevertheless, pay more. Packages can cost as much as $80 per month, she said.

The newest systems in the country

Sperry said AT&T's broadband network is one of the newest systems in the country, having been completely rebuilt afterwards Hurricane Katrina destroyed near everything in its path in 2005. She took issue with the characterization that service is slower in some parts of town than in others, even though it may be that those in poorer neighborhoods can only afford the most basic - and slower - broadband packages. "The same system in New Orleans East is the same system in the 9th Ward," Sperry said. "Most of our effort now, even though, is in enhancing our wireless network since more clients are now accessing the Internet via mobile devices."

Even with mobile, service can at times be more spotty in certain areas of a city than others, and mobile isn’t always ideal for filling out forms, watching video or playing educational games.

When asked about municipal broadband networks, Sperry said they do not provide a level playing field for competitors like her company. AT&T and Cox would both have to pay taxes, however the municipal networks would not, she said. The networks are as well very hard to build, she added. Sperry referred Poynter to a colleague with expertise in legislative policy, yet that colleague declined to answer questions.

AT&T and Cox are the only broadband providers for residential clients in New Orleans; business clients, nevertheless, have their choice of broadband carriers, including specialty providers in the market.

Only one municipal broadband network exists in Louisiana. It's in Lafayette, not New Orleans. The $150 million network nearly didn't materialize due to stiff opposition from telecom lobbyists, primarily from competitors Bell South and Cox Communications, that included a lawsuit to stop the project on unfair competition grounds; Lafayette won the case.

The town's municipal network offers cheaper service

The town's municipal network offers cheaper service and is now listed as one of the fastest in the country. Afterwards Lafayette's network was completed, telecom lobbyists prevailed in persuading state legislators to put furthermore restrictions on building municipal networks, including giving the telecom companies first right of refusal. This means that telecom giants have the authority to shut down any municipal network earlier it can get off the ground. The fight is part of a larger trend happening all across the country. Since the law was passed in Louisiana, no other municipal network has been built.

Sperry, a former journalist who moved to New Orleans afterwards Hurricane Katrina, expressed sadness and uncertainty about the Picayune's decision to reduce publication of its print product. In a telephone interview with Poynter, she lamented over friends at the paper who recently lost jobs and about the amount of wire copy the paper already runs in its business section.

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.

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 Research Council. The council is an association of large companies formed to address the innovation component for the New Orleans’ economy; a phone call to the president of the council was not suddenly returned.

New Orleans, with its scenic streets and storied past, already has a history of corruption. Ironically, the city's former chief of research, Gregg Meffert, pleaded guilty and was jailed for taking kickbacks. A free municipal broadband network he started was shut down in 2008 due to low usage, however The Lens report as well suggests that the project is now tainted due to Meffert's arrest.

In the past, the newspaper broke news during local television and radio stations followed-up and confirmed the stories, Gonzalez said. Calling TV the "poor man's news source," Gonzalez said the advent of the Internet, and especially social media, has caused local TV news to become more competitive.

"There's so much poverty in New Orleans, and people don't have access to the Internet," said Gonzalez, in the midst of covering the National Association of Black Journalists convention taking place there. "Who knows where all of this is going? Radio and TV will have to step up its game and fill the gap in terms of holding public servants accountable. Somebody's got to do that and keep that going."

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."

The project used

The project used by The Lens that maps broadband adoption allows anyone to embed the maps on their web site–the embed guide is here:

More information: Poynter
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    Lower Ninth Ward Broadband 20 %