A commenter over on our Google Moderator page left a story suggestion that he'd like to see us cover: what is the state of the digital divide between smartphone and other cellphone users? Here's Craig's comment:
"There's an app for almost everything, but does everyone have a smartphone? What's the digital divide for smartphone users vs. non-smartphones. What's the real market for apps?"
Good question, Craig. I know in Baltimore there are the usual telecom wireless operators, i.e. Verizon and AT&T. But we're also seeing a company called Cricket getting in the action, offering smart and feature phones for cheaper prices. Sprint has a subsidiary called Boost Mobile. These companies offer monthly plans and alternative pricing options.
I haven't poked around yet to see if there are breakdowns of smartphone/feature (or dumb) phone users by geographic region. That would be an interesting stat. If anyone finds any data, please drop a link in the comments below.
That said, I'd like to start a Google Doc Spreadsheet where we can all document examples of a "digital divide" in Baltimore, whether it's for businesses, or schools, or government.
Please add your ideas or examples here.
FYI: About a year ago, I wrote about the broadband digital divide in Baltimore when compared to other East Coast cities. Here's the story:
A NEED FOR SPEED
Baltimore City struggles to play catch-up with its suburbs and other U.S. urban areas in broadband Internet access
Access to faster broadband Internet service is increasingly viewed as an economic imperative, and not just a privilege for those who can afford it. But many rural and some urban communities, such as Baltimore, are worried that they're being left behind as commerce, innovation and prosperity are increasingly intertwined with the Internet."My take on it is that Baltimore is not equipped for the future," said the Rev. Johnny Golden, past president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and an advocate for improved access to technology in the city. "We have a decent broadband system for today, but it does not have the infrastructure to take us into the future where we need to go."
To address such concerns, the Federal Communications Commission recently released a 10-year-plan to bring greater broadband access to many Americans and rewire the country so it can better compete globally.
Meanwhile, hundreds of local jurisdictions nationwide are vying to lure the attention of Google, which plans to invest up to $1 billion to build a super-high-speed fiber-optic network to serve as many as 500,000 people. A grass-roots effort in Baltimore prompted Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to organize a public-private endeavor to attract the Google pilot project to the city.
In comparison with other large U.S. cities, Baltimore trails in broadband adoption among its residents, according to FCC statistics. And there are wide disparities across Maryland, with the most affluent counties of Howard and Montgomery having the best Internet connections, while Baltimore and rural counties lag, according to the data from the end of 2008.
As few as 200 and as many as 400 out of every 1,000 Baltimore households were using a minimum level of broadband service at the end of 2008 - compared with a range of 600 to 800 out of every 1,000 households in New York and Boston. Telecommunications carriers are required to report their customers' broadband adoption in a range that makes it easy to make comparisons across jurisdictions in the United States.
In Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore County, the rate is 400 to 600 out of every 1,000 households.
"I frequently am sitting at my computer and I'm always waiting for it to keep up, for stuff to come in from the Web," said Tom Loveland, chief executive of technology company Mind Over Machines based in Owings Mills. "I often lose one or two ideas because I couldn't get it out fast enough. It dawned on me that just doubling or tripling our speed would make everybody's productivity so much better."
Supporters of Baltimore's Google effort point to the city's educational and medical institutions, its budding technology and start-up culture, and its proximity to major federal agencies as reasons for the Internet giant to invest in the city.
Loveland, whom Rawlings-Blake appointed as volunteer "Google czar," said Baltimore has the people and the institutions capable of exploring new ways of handling the flood of data the Google service would bring. Google wants to build a network that delivers speeds of up to 1,000 megabits-per-second downloads - whereas Baltimore residents now generally have access to 50 megabits per second or less.
"Just imagine if you could walk through and go inside torrents of data," said Loveland, referring to how data was depicted in the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report."
"If you could walk through them in a Tom Cruise way, and be inside the data, just imagine the insights you could come up with to improve innovation in America."
Spurring that kind of leap forward in innovation has increasingly become a public sector goal. The FCC's push for broadband improvement was mandated by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted last year.
Public officials, businesses and technology advocates have argued that better broadband infrastructure across the U.S. would boost the economy and foster innovation. The FCC has highlighted the benefits that more powerful broadband networks could bring in the areas of health care, education, energy and environment, government performance, civic engagement and public safety.
Among 30 developed countries, the United States was a middle-of-the-pack performer in broadband connections and ranked last in terms of consumer affordability, according to a recent Harvard study.
"People are really starting to understand how important it is as an infrastructure," said John B. Horrigan, director of consumer research for the FCC's national broadband plan.
In Maryland, federal stimulus dollars are being used to map broadband availability across the state, with an emphasis on assessing services in rural areas. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development is working with the Maryland Broadband Cooperative to measure broadband availability, and it has set up a Web site that enables people to test their connections and respond to a survey.
Fear of obsolescence in Baltimore City is one reason Verizon has attracted the scorn of community activists. Progressive Maryland, a coalition of unions, community groups and clergy members, has accused the telecom giant of "redlining" Baltimore by choosing not to roll out its latest fiber-optic broadband service - known as FiOS - in the city and instead focusing on other Maryland jurisdictions.
Verizon says the next-generation FiOS service, which is costly to install, will eventually come to Baltimore, but a timetable has not been set. The service is in various stages of deployment in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
In the meantime, Verizon sells a slower DSL and satellite coverage with a partner. Its main competitor, Comcast, offers broadband through its cable television lines.
At the slowest speed - 1 megabit per second, which is good for Web surfing, e-mail, and downloading small files - Verizon offers a monthly plan for $19.99. The fastest Verizon Internet connection available to some Baltimore residents is 7.1 megabits per second, which is good for downloading movies and streaming video, starting at $39.99 a month.
Comcast offers 1-megabit-per-second service for $24.95 a month for customers who also have access to its television or telephone service. Its fastest service in the city, 50 megabits per second, costs $99.95 a month.
Neither company releases figures on how many Internet customers it has in Baltimore.
The FCC plan calls for affordable broadband by 2020, but it doesn't define what affordable means. In Baltimore, the median household income in 2008 was $40,087 - whereas Maryland's was more than $70,000.
Horrigan said the FCC's research showed that one-third of those who don't have broadband connectivity blamed its relatively high cost as the main barrier to adoption.
"To the extent that Baltimore has pockets of poverty, that's going to drive low broadband adoption in those areas," Horrigan said. "It becomes a self-reinforcing problem. You're less likely to subscribe to broadband if you live in a neighborhood with others who don't subscribe to broadband."
In November, the agency found that 67 percent of households in the United States had access to broadband Internet service. But the agency found a lower rate of broadband adoption among minorities, the poor, the disabled and senior citizens. Fifty-nine percent of African-Americans and 49 percent for Hispanics have broadband coverage in their homes, the FCC survey found.
On average, Americans paid $41 a month for broadband service, the FCC found.
For many middle- and lower-middle-class Baltimore families, $40 is the most they can afford to spend for broadband each month, said Golden of the ministerial alliance.
"Once you get beyond $40 a month, you're squeezing people out of the pot who probably say they can't afford it," Golden said.
The FCC's 10-year plan, which faces opposition from several telecom companies, seeks to bring 100-megabit service to 100 million consumers. The test network that Google wants to build would be 10 times as fast.
Companies and municipalities typically blanch at the high cost and technical challenges of running fiber-optic wires in dense urban environments. Getting optical fiber to each and every residential home is an expensive endeavor that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
If Google were to wire the city of Baltimore, it would have to run fiber through at least 3.9 million linear feet of conduit under city streets, according to city officials.
Some Baltimore boosters argue that Google has an opportunity to set up its pilot project in a city without any significant competition because Verizon isn't building its fastest network here. Also, the city owns most of the underground conduits where the wires would run, and officials are using that as a selling point to Google, which wants to streamline its installation process.
"We believe if Google chose to go this route, they could build the entire network using almost all our conduits," said David Troy, an entrepreneur and volunteer organizer for Baltimore's Google Fiber effort.
The capacity that Google Fiber would bring to Baltimore would help fuel the city's renaissance, Troy said. And at the very least, he said, the effort has helped sharpen the debate.
"Even if this doesn't work out with Google, we've done two things," said Troy. "We've caused a citywide conversation about our infrastructure, and secondly, we made a strong pitch as to why Baltimore is a good place to invest."
This is an archived version of the technology blog. For updated coverage, see the current baltTech