Magazine

Equal Opportunity Speedway


Speedy internet connections once were considered perks for the privileged. Robust Net access was enjoyed by 30% of U.S. households as late as 2005, mostly in white homes. Meanwhile, so-called broadband adoption by blacks was a mere 14%, according to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The resulting "digital divide" between white and black was considered a lasting socioeconomic problem--like the protracted disparity between black and white unemployment.

Surprise. In the past two years, African Americans have been devouring broadband technology--and the digital divide has shrunk significantly, at least for this group. The share of black households with a cable modem, DSL, or satellite Internet connection climbed to 40% this year, Pew says. That's almost twice as fast as the growth of broadband penetration for the general population, which grew to 47%. The income gap has narrowed, too, but not as much: Households making less than $30,000 a year doubled their broadband participation, to 30%. That still pales next to 76% for households that have incomes of at least $75,000.

Some of the closing of the racial divide can be traced to falling prices and rising availability of new technology. When telecom and cable companies first offered broadband, they naturally started with the toniest neighborhoods. Since 2002, broadband prices have fallen, by more than half in some cases. "Almost all technologies start as something only available to a privileged group, whether it's refrigerators or Net access," says Omar Wasow, strategic adviser to ethnic Internet portal provider Community Connect and co-founder of its site BlackPlanet.com.

But that masks a deeper shift in the relationship of blacks to the Web. The Net today offers an abundance of entertainment riches--digital music, pictures, movies, video chat, games--that can be tailored to individual taste, not to mention services such as job networks and training. Gaining access to that killer content without broadband speeds would be like sucking hot fudge through a straw.

GETTING PERSONAL

Five years ago, when broadband was just taking off, the Web's attraction was less obvious. But experts in African American marketing contend that black-oriented TV and radio programming has diminished. Prime-time network shows starring blacks have all but disappeared amid consolidation and a dearth of black writers; radio stations play plenty of hip-hop, but far less classic jazz or soul.

In the meantime, the ever-more-personalized offerings of the Web have exploded. African Americans can download the music they like from sites such as Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iTunes. Video and movie libraries abound, as do sports sites that embellish standard TV offerings with insider videos and blogs of popular African American athletes. "The opportunity to see yourself has all but disappeared in traditional media," says Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a newsletter addressing the black market. "Those things make broadband continually appealing to African Americans."

The Web also offers social and economic services other groups take for granted. Pew data show that 73% of African Americans who are online have used the Net for school or training, vs. 54% of whites. Some 67% of black Netizens have sought jobs online, vs. 39% of whites. "Black people are recognizing that broadband plays a big role in removing barriers," says Rey Ramsey, CEO of One Economy Corp., a nonprofit that uses technology to help low-income people. "Even in public housing, there is an enormous interest in getting a broadband connection."

By Roger O. Crockett and Spencer E. Ante


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