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A few years back, I angrily canceled my DSL and local telephone service with SBC after their horrible customer service and slamming technique drove me away. I likely muttered something like this under my breath: “Hell will freeze over before I’ll say something positive about telephone companies.” Consider it frozen.

After poring over the numbers from the latest survey (PDF file) from Pew Internet & American Life, I have to grudgingly admit the telcos have helped bridge the digital divide by cutting prices on DSL service. That means more poor and middle-income people and minorities now have broadband Internet access at home, and that more of these people are creating and sharing content online. Net result: The high-speed Internet now reaches more people than just the elite, and their voices are being heard online.

Here are some of the key figures from the recent report, Home Broadband Adoption 2006:

> As of March 2006, 84 million or 42% of American adults had broadband access at home, up from 60 million or 30% of Americans in March 2005. That growth rate of 40% is double the adoption rate the year before.

> Broadband adoption was up a whopping 68% in households earning $40,000 to $50,000 per year, and even up 40% in households making less than $30,000 per year.

> Broadband access is up 63% among people aged 65 or higher, it’s up 121% among blacks, and up 46% among hispanics. And it’s up 70% among people with less than a high school education.

> While the average high-speed cable bill has remained steady at $41 per month, the average DSL bill has gone from $38 in 2004 to $32 in 2006. DSL now accounts for half the broadband households, with cable lagging at 41%.

John Horrigan, associate director for research at Pew Internet, was the author of the report. He told me that DSL taking the lead over cable was a big turn-around.

“The fact that DSL has overtaken cable as a source for broadband was one big surprise,” Horrigan said. “We’ve seen the trend over the past couple years of DSL encroaching on cable’s market share, but to see DSL surpassing it was a bit of a surprise. Once you get into the data, you realize it’s not as much of a surprise. You see that DSL providers have offered price cuts over the past 18 months or so.”

Plus, dial-up access to the Internet was down in price, causing overall Internet penetration to rise from 66% to 73%. So what does all this price-cutting and diversity online lead to? Pew found that people with broadband tend to spend more time online, specifically doing user-generated content such as writing blogs, running a web page or posting photos or video. For instance, 8% of all Internet users maintain a blog or journal, but 11% of broadband users blog.

Among the people who post content online — 43 million Americans — are 32% of white Net users, 39% of blacks online, and 42% of hispanics online. Why the higher numbers for blacks and hispanics? Horrigan told me that was because those groups tended to be younger than whites demographically, and younger folks tend to be the ones putting content online.

So while I do question the way telecoms have treated their customers (including me), and I wonder about their stance on Net neutrality, I have to give credit where credit is due. The telecom companies — likely motivated by gaining market share and not good will — cut prices on DSL, leading more people to join the broadband revolution, thereby bringing more diversity to the people who are blogging, podcasting and doing all the things that makes new media tick. And that’s a very good thing.

What do you think? Have DSL price cuts helped to bridge the digital divide, or do we still have a long way to go? What other ways can we help bridge the divide here and in other countries? Share your thoughts in the comments below.