The perceived impact of municipal wireless broadband networks on the digital divide: A tale of five cities

by Ortiz, Julio Angel, Ph.D., THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2008, 277 pages; 3336101


The single pervasive theme of the 21st century has been decided: bridging the digital divide. A common belief is that simply delivering information and communication technologies (ICT) to communities lacking access to and skilled use of technology will suffice. Often solutions are developed without adequate consultation with the local community, leading to a design-reality gap. This dissertation examines the extent to which the use of ICTs like wireless mesh broadband via government-led deployments can conquer the digital divide.

Recently, public elites have decided to design, develop and implement city-wide wireless broadband networks (Mu-Fi) all while offering a cornucopia of benefits. Such benefits generally fall into three broad categories: promoting economic development, enhancing governmental services and narrowing the digital divide. While municipalities, with their provision of Wi-Fi public access, have the desire to make their citizens feel more included in the Information Society, these municipal actions have provoked a flurry of responses from concerned constituents, including Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs), state legislators and the U.S. Congress. As armed rhetorical camps, both private and public elites are aggressively pushing their own agendas forward with little to no scientific evidence to support their claims. The debate is largely framed in polarizing terms: one side is imbued with a halo of positivism, the other with negativism. In this light, the purpose of this dissertation is to examine the impact of Mu-Fi on the digital divide, and thus contribute scientifically to the discourse. Specifically, I am interested in investigating how network aggregate indicators (NAI) affect quality-of-life aggregate indicators (QoLAI), and thus, mitigate the so-called digital divide. The main research question driving this study is: Does a municipal wireless broadband network have a perceived measurable impact on the digital divide?

This study adopts the term technological enthusiasm by drawing on several theoretical frameworks to inform this research. It is important to utilize multiple theories to account for the complexity of human nature and diverse perspectives when investigating the role municipal wireless systems play in promoting digital inclusion. Using qualitative methods, multiple case study research approach, several data sources from five U.S. Cities were used. The analysis aims to present an inter-disciplinary and holistic vision of Mu-Fi vis-à-vis a very complex, dynamic and evolving digital divide. By doing so, the author attempts to dispel (or promote) what the public perceives as a need and what public officials see as convenience and necessity. Specifically, data from these cities was used to evaluate the impact on the digital divide. The results from these data sets were compared in order to explore whether the relationship between NAI and QoLAI had an effect on the digital divide and if this effect varied across different organizational settings. The findings will show if these cities have failed or succeeded in achieving their digital divide objectives.

Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsMultimedia communications; Information science
Publication Number3336101

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