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SXSW: Internet Haves and Have-Nots

by Alan Melson 12 Mar 2011 12:01 AM

Day 1 of this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference on Friday brought conversations about making the internet even more ubiquitous in America – and what tools could help make that happen.


Over the past few days, downtown Austin has been transformed into the overstuffed bouillabaisse of discussion, promotion and networking that is South by Southwest – SXSW – for another year. Day 1 of the interactive conference on Friday brought conversations about making the internet even more ubiquitous in America – and what tools could help make that happen. KERA’s Director of Interactive Alan Melson is blogging from various sessions throughout the conference.

Texas native Matt Mullenweg has become something of a legend in Internet circles. Mullenweg, 27, created the blogging platform WordPress in 2004 while still a student at the University of Houston, and has dedicated his work since then to constant expansions and upgrades to improve the platform. Usage of WordPress has exploded, thanks in large part to its being free to use in its most basic form; many first-time bloggers have been able to establish an online presence simply and quickly on the platform, yet it is also used by organizations as large as The New York Times and CNN (as well as Art&Seek).

Matt Mullenweg (left) and John Battelle at SXSW Interactive. (clussman on Flickr)

In his well-attended Q&A on the first day of SXSW Interactive 2011, Mullenweg offered the surprising statistic that 12 percent of Internet sites are now powered by WordPress. Speaking to interviewer John Battelle, the affable, optimistic Mullenweg said he wants to see WordPress’ growth continue – not just as a blogging tool but as a way for people to manage content on larger or more traditional websites. He also reaffirmed his commitment to keeping his basic product readily accessible at no cost.

“The more I’ve given away, the more I’ve gotten back, so it makes sense to keep giving stuff away,” he said. “When you do it right and build a business in a sustainable way, there is less incentive to focus on monetization.”

But even as free or open-source tools like WordPress abound, there is still a sizable portion of the United States without access to the Internet – at least at speeds fast enough to access most of today’s content. Down the hall, another discussion focused on that issue, and the roadblocks that keep more Americans from being able to take advantage of what the web has to offer.

The “Digital Divide” forum featured librarian, technology advocate and blogger Jessamyn West talking about the sizable areas of her state, Vermont, that still lack high-speed internet options, and how the issue is more common across rural America than telecom companies may lead you to believe. West said recent statistics show that 35 percent of America still lacks broadband connectivity options, severely limiting residents’ access to streaming media, advanced e-mail and social-networking sites most Internet users take for granted.

“The ‘cloud’ we hear about is only real to those with broadband access,” West said.

The biggest hurdle, West said, involves the substantial cost of running the “final mile” of fiberoptic cable to these rural homes – a cost many companies don’t want given the low number of residents, and thus potential subscribers, in those areas. West said the lack of access directly impacts children and young adults in those areas, who don’t get a chance to become the “digital natives” who quickly learn Internet-related skills due to frequent usage, giving them a valuable skillset for education and, later, for the workforce.

The future for providing more exposure to the Internet world isn’t completely bleak, however. Fellow panelist Fiona Morgan, a veteran newspaper reporter now pursuing graduate work in public policy at Duke University, recounted a recent North Carolina project paid for with federal stimulus funds that outfitted 27 public housing projects with free wireless access. The project led to a great expansion in Internet usage and literacy among residents; West said this supports the panel’s conclusion that increasing adoption of internet usage is much easier than increasing access.

Read more here about the SXSW Digital Divide forum.  And watch Art&Seek for more coverage from SXSW throughout the coming week.