The Unexpected Way McDonald's is Helping Solve Inequality

We’ve been hearing a lot about food lately, starting with the horsemeat scandal and one of the most emailed articles ever in the New York Times about junk food. As dodgy quality control and the masterminding of addictive munchies paint a Sinclarian outlook on America’s food future, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on an unexpected way that fast food chain McDonald’s is helping to solve broadband inequality — but with a potential price.

The golden arches are among other chain franchises like Starbucks that are increasingly becoming vital hot spots for students to finish their homework. In rural Citronelle, Alabama, for example, McDonald’s is one of the few places students can access free Wi-Fi during peak homework hours at night — after other public facilities like the town library have closed. I don’t have to convince PolicyMic readers that Internet usage has become an integral part of the educational process; after all, the United Nations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have respectively published recent reports that outlines the importance of Internet education as a gateway for students to develop appropriate skillsets in a globalizing world. But while smart phones and tablet hardware decrease in price, the cost of Internet connectivity hasn’t decreased.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, accessibility to high-speed Internet directly correlates to whether you live in a wealthy (and more populated) neighborhood. The study found that 96% of households with incomes of $75,000 or more had access to high-speed Internet. However, only 66% enjoyed the same high-speed Internet if the household income was less than $30,000.

So for students who live in Citronelle, where the average household income is $33,308, McDonald’s is going to be the place to go to finish up your assignments.

Here, we have a Catch-22. While McDonald’s is providing an incredible digital connectivity service, it also encourages poor eating habits in arguably the most nutritionally vulnerable demographic. While customers are not obligated to buy anything to access free Wi-Fi, who is stopping the 17 or 18-year-old Lacy Victorias from accompanying their essay writing with "two McDoubles?" Given this recent YouthRadio story about teens' snack food habits, the propensity for the obesity pandemic to grow — the onset of an educational McPocalypse — is high.

One solution might be for rural communities to take Internet connectivity matters into their own hands, as did a group of locals in a small town in Lancashire, England. Residents have installed fiber optic cables across a field that spans their town to create B4RN, or Broadband for the Rural North. The people of Arkholme were able to install B4RN on a cheaper dime than that nation’s broadband companies would have imagined doing because they didn’t have to dig up any major roads. The heavily community-based project also attracted many volunteer engineers and IT retirees as well as shareholders. To boot, B4RN downloads at a whopping 500 Mbps as compared to the average U.S. connection: a meager 7.2 Mbps.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is rolling out a major initiative to expand broadband access to rural and underserved areas. The Connect America Fund promises to build and expand broadband infrastructure to the 18 million Americans who currently don't have access to this service.

"You can’t live without broadband anymore,” said Barry Forde, the chief executive behind B4RN to the BBC. "It doesn’t matter if you live in the countryside or in the town. If you haven’t got broadband, you’re severely disadvantaged."

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Yumi Araki

Yumi Araki is studying politics at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and was previously an editorial intern at Talking Points Memo and the associate producer at a documentary company specializing in covering science, technology and medicine. She is also a writer and digital storyteller who has published pieces in her hometown of Tokyo, her dream hometown of London, and her current home in Boston. Visit her at www.yumiaraki.com.

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