Can the free market solve the digital divide?

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Daniel Parker
Guest Columnist

As American society shifts to the realm of the digital, the poor are increasingly faced with the struggles that accompany not having Internet access. In Richmond, tech company Lionlike recently announced a plan to help combat what experts call the digital divide with a public Wi-Fi service.

Most college students have the means to pay for an Internet connection, but like most luxuries, the ones being left out of the digital revolution are the poor, specifically households that make less than $15,000 a year. As more companies begin to use digital job applications instead of outdated paper resumes, the doors close for even more people trying to escape poverty.

BBC reports that 1 million students will score lower than their counterparts because they do not have access to computers with Internet. Ninety percent of students surveyed used the Internet to their advantage on homework assignments. The research shows that teacher influence does little to bridge the gap between households with Internet and households without.

Most solutions are populist in nature, involving a government Wi-Fi service to aid poor communities. Lionlike, on the other hand, is hoping to achieve its goal of Wi-Fi for the less fortunate, without spending any taxpayer funds through an ambitious new business plan.

The plan is essentially to have businesses pay a one-time fee of $200 for a wireless router, the incentive being that when someone signs in to the public Wi-Fi, that user will receive an advertisement from the local company that bought the router before signing in. Local companies that have signed up already include The Halligan Bar & Grill, Crave, Aqua, The Old City Bar, River City Diner, 707 Fine Clothing, Smiley’s Glass and Extreme Audio, according to Lionlike’s website.

The next strategy for revenue for the public Wi-Fi is a monthly charge of $5 to users in exchange for a faster connection with the bonus of no ads. Lionlike will also offer secure encryption for the data of users as well.

Not only will this plan help the poor of Richmond, it could also assist VCU students living off campus. Instead of paying Comcast’s bloated fees, a student could pay for a much more reasonable fee of $5, a fee even students strapped for cash could afford.

This new cheap Wi-Fi service will allow students to improve grades. Instead of trekking across Richmond to the library to research, they can do research and check emails in the convenience of their homes.

For better or for worse, the Internet has completely changed the world. It has brought once-prominent businesses to their knees and has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. Students without readily available Internet are being set up for failure. If Lionlike can’t do it, then someone else will attempt to level the playing field for young lower-class students in this country.

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