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UIC prof will present ‘digital divide’ data to FCC WiFi discussion

Karen Mossberger UIC's digital-divide expert with community aremap. | Provided Photo

Karen Mossberger, UIC's digital-divide expert, with a community area map. | Provided Photo

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Updated: March 7, 2013 10:14AM

A University of Illinois-Chicago expert on the “digital divide” will unveil new research to federal regulators Thursday showing federal stimulus money likely helped poor Chicagoans learn to use the Internet but failed to help them afford speedy Internet access in their homes.

Karen Mossberger, a professor and digital divide guru at UIC, will testify on a panel at the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Summit in Washington, D.C.

The summit coincides with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s proposal this week for super-strength Wi-Fi networks to be spread nationwide to give people free and speedy wireless access to the Internet. The proposal would require broadcasters and local TV networks to sell a portion of their airwaves to the government for use as the public WiFi networks.

The free networks would resolve the biggest hurdle that poor Chicagoans face in getting fast Internet access in their homes, said Mossberger, who has co-authored a new book, “Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity.”

“For low-income neighborhoods, the cost of Internet access is a major barrier,” she said.

Indeed, Mossberger will unveil her research on nine poor Chicago neighborhoods that received a combined $7 million “Smart Communities” grant to train residents how to use the Internet.

The stimulus grant was intended to teach residents how to use the Internet to look for jobs, create neighborhood news portals and expand a social media meeting place for teens, among other efforts.

From 2008 to 2011, the neighborhoods saw a jump, to 80 percent on average, of the residents using the Internet, including on smartphones and in public places such as libraries. This was an increase of 15 percentage points more than other Chicago neighborhoods during that period.

But no significant increase occurred in the numbers of residents who had fast Internet access at home. The neighborhoods are Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Englewood, West Englewood, Auburn-Gresham, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn, Gage Park and West Elsdon.

The study results by UIC and the University of Iowa will be posted Wednesday on the website of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, at The non-profit group paid for the study.

Mossberger also agreed with the FCC plan’s ability to spur innovations.

“Wireless networks could make whole cities function like computers in open air, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers Carlo Ratti and Anthony Townsend have argued,” she said. “Networks can be used to control traffic, mass transit, public safety, smart electrical grids and more.”

Opponents of the FCC plan, including wireless telecom companies that profit by selling WiFi access, argue widespread public access might interfere with existing wireless networks and would require expensive upfront investment in fiber and microwave infrastructure.

Yankee Group analyst Rich Karpinski said Tuesday in a report that “a cash-strapped federal government” could ultimately let wireless companies have extra airwaves, too, where the carriers could reap even more revenues from the new services they could sell.

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