Digital Divide Now is More Subtle

There is no digital divide on inter-city trains, inter-city buses or airplanes, a study of use of personal devices on buses, trains and airplanes suggests.

Internet access remains an issue in rural and lower-income areas, compared to suburban and mid-income urban areas, to be sure, but the issues now are more subtle, having as much to do with people not seeing Internet access as useful as actual physical lack of access.

To be sure, use of fixed high speed access services is lower among households with less income. Access is 70 percent amongst households with $10,000 or less annual income, in the 85-percent range for households with income between $20,000 and $40,000, and above 90 percent for households in higher income ranges.

But age explains non-use of the Internet as much as income. Also, mobile Internet access is substantial among lower-income households, ranging from 50 percent to 60 percent among lower-income groups.

In fact, many younger users use mobile Internet access, rather than fixed network access. In other words, much of the digital divide that remains in U.S. Internet access is explained by age or use of mobile access.

Access speeds in rural areas continue to lag offered speeds in urban and suburban areas, as a rule, though the gap is closing, as cable TV high speed access services tend to be much faster than all-copper digital subscriber line connections. That is true even in India.

That is one good reason why AT&T, among others, is upgrading rural networks with fiber.

In fact, widespread use of connected personal devices on inter-city transportation services suggests the important role ownership of connected devices now plays.

On Greyhound inter-city buses, the use  of personal technology use is now significantly higher than on airplanes and is only marginally below that on Amtrak and discount bus lines, a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development has found.

In fact, for the first time in five years, use of personal devices on at least one  inter-city bus service was higher than on airplanes or Amtrak.

Among the 505 passengers observed on 20 Megabus and Van Galder buses operating from curbside locations in 2013, 59 percent were using technology, compared to 46 percent in 2012.

In large part, that might be because the amount of use of new “connected” bus services--which offer travelers uninterrupted cell phone signals as well as free Wi-Fi and power outlets--grew 30 percent between 2012 and 2013.

On Amtrak, the share of technology users was flat at 52 percent in 2013, the study found.

Availability of power outlets, Wi-Fi and mobile access likely explains the lighter use of personal devices on airplanes, according to the Technology in  Intercity Travel Study.

Technology use on airlines remained virtually flat and continues to lag behind other
modes in 2013, suggesting that lack of communications “for no incremental cost” is an issue.

But the ban on phone calls aboard aircraft, as well as the lack of power outlets, likely also are issues.

The two fastest growing modes of intercity travel over the calendar years 2012 and 2013—intercity trains and discount buses—were also those in which the technology use was observed to be the highest in early 2013.

The amount of discount bus service grew by four percent between 2012 and 2013, while the number of Amtrak seat-miles grew by 1.4 percent, as did airline seats.

Availability of Wi-Fi and mobile Internet connections, the “no incremental cost” access and lawfulness of device app use on trains and buses possibly explains the higher use of personal devices on buses and trains.

Mobile device connections are disabled in the air, on airplanes, in addition to being unlawful. When Wi-Fi is available, usage requires payment, and power outlets often also are not available.

But there seems to be no “digital divide” between passengers on inter-city buses, trains or airplanes.
The Chaddick Institute survey in 2014 consisted of 1,659 airline travelers, 1,608 intercity train (Amtrak) passengers, 505 discount city-to-city bus passengers (Megabus and Coach USA), 270 conventional intercity bus passengers, and 2,992 commuter rail passengers.

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