In February, most of the candidates for the Kansas City Council took part in a forum examining the city’s digital future.
They talked about the “digital divide” — the fact that the wonders of high-speed Internet service aren’t yet universal in our community.
About one in four Kansas Citians lacks any broadband connection. Consumers in relatively poor neighborhoods who do buy digital service are choosing slower, less expensive connections.
The council candidates discussed ways to address the problem. Their answers were good but predictable: Work with the private sector. Reach out to underserved communities. Publicize the importance of the Internet.
It’s hard for most of us to think creatively about the Internet because, for all its importance, we still don’t know precisely what the Internet will become.
We know it has fundamentally disrupted the information, entertainment and retail industries. We experience advertising, news, music, television, travel, politics and even routine purchases much differently today than we did 20 years ago. Those changes are permanent.
Yet they don’t matter for millions of people because access to information and entertainment is a luxury — an expense to be deleted if the budget gets tight. And while buying stuff is a necessity, you don’t need a computer to buy underwear. Yet.
So the Internet can take a back seat to food, medicine, shelter, clothing, heat. It’s possible many Kansas Citians lack digital service because they don’t want to buy a computer or tablet, not because they can’t afford Google’s installation costs.
That seems likely to change. If its potential is realized, the Internet will someday resemble a utility like water service or electricity, commodities so essential governments have to guarantee access. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission recently ruled that the Internet should be regulated like a utility.
It’s possible Kansas City Public Schools has built the last schoolhouse it will ever need: Your grandkids will go to class in front of a screen. At that point, someone will need to provide every kid with that screen.
You may see the doctor on the Web. Your refrigerator will be digital. Your car. Your newspaper. Your bills.
When those changes become commonplace, politicians won’t be asked how the digital divide might be erased. The public will demand low-cost, universal access.
For now, the Web still seems optional, less important than a new pair of boxers.