UI professor wins Harvard book award for studying internet access disparities

University of Iowa political science professor Caroline Tolbert received the 2022 Goldsmith Book Prize in academics for her book, Choosing the Future: Technology and Opportunity in Communities.


University of Iowa Professor Caroline Tolbert was awarded a 2022 Goldsmith Book Prize in Academic for her book, Choosing the Future: Technology and Opportunity in Communities.

Tolbert, a political science professor, collaborated with co-authors Karen Mossberger and Scott J. LaCombe on the award-winning book.

The book examines disparities in internet access across communities in the U.S. and argues that broadband internet use in the population is a form of digital human capital used to benefit various communities.

Since 1991, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government has presented the Goldsmith Awards Program. The program’s goals are to encourage a more insightful and spirited debate about government, politics, and press.

Each year, there are two winners of the Goldsmith Best Book Award, one dealing with trade and the other in academics.

This is the fourth book in Tolbert and Mossberger’s series on internet access and equality. The two first worked together on the 2003 book Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide.

Tolbert said one of the struggles in getting policymakers and elected officials to understand that technology policy is really important in its own right.

“We had a lot of people who studied healthcare and environmental policy for a long time, but technology policy was the newcomer on the block,” she said. “I don’t know if people in the beginning understood how crippling it could be if a household or a community was offline.”

A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found 77 percent of U.S. adults say they have a broadband connection at home.

Tolbert said she thinks some of the added attention her book received could largely be a result of the COVID-19 pandemic bringing awareness to broadband issues.

“After March 2020, everybody was thrown online, so classes were online and we Zoomed for work and the percentage of the population working remotely skyrocketed,” she said. “Our habits are forever changed… we’ll go back to face to face, but that hybridity is now kind of burned into our society.”

Mossberger, who is also a professor in the school of public affairs at Arizona State University, said one of the reasons disparities in internet access in the U.S. are so prevalent is because the cost of the internet is expensive.

“Even if new infrastructure is built in rural communities with the new federal legislation, if there isn’t something to ensure affordability, we won’t make much progress,” Mossberger said.

Last summer, the U.S. Senate passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a $1 trillion dollar federal investment in improving the nation’s roads, highways, bridges, and access to broadband.

LaCombe, who received his Ph.D. in political science from the UI in 2020 and is an assistant professor of statistical and data sciences at Smith College, said the often politicized rural/urban divide does not play as big a factor when it comes to access to broadband internet.

“Suburban [areas] are doing really well regardless of where you live, and then you have urban cores and rural areas, and both of those communities, the super urban and the very rural communities are both ones that lack broadband access,” he said.

Tolbert said for this fourth rendition of her internet and inequality book series, the authors were trying to discover the correlation between economic prosperity and internet access.

“For communities that have better broadband connectivity over time, do they have higher change in median income? Do people that live there have better lives?” She said, “If you don’t address technology, we’re gonna be shortcutting the ability for other communities to thrive and be successful.”

In October 2021, Iowa used $210 million in American Rescue Plan Funding (ARPA) for new broadband infrastructure and access.

Tolbert said she thought it was unfortunate that more states didn’t allocate a large portion of ARPA funding to expanding broadband.

“[Broadband] doesn’t necessarily give you big payback instantly, but it’s the kind of thing that would give states payback over decades,” she said. “Technology is part of many networks of policies that really should be considered to modernize and update this country to create the type of opportunity that citizens deserve.”

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