December 15, 2009 – The value of universal access to broadband was discussed at an occasionally tense Federal Communications Commission field hearing in Memphis on Monday night. The hearing was intended to focus on whether broadband services are being deployed in a way that allows all Americans to benefit, though it also addressed why internet access is necessary.
“I believe that universal access to broadband needs to be seen as a civil right,” said FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “I don’t think you can look at it in any other way.”
“We’re here tonight because broadband access and broadband adoption are essential to full civic participation in our society,” said civil rights leader and former FCC commissioner Benjamin L. Hooks. For example, most jobs now require online applications, forcing potential employees to possess at least nominal digital literacy in order to apply.
So are citizens enjoying the benefits of broadband adoption? Not in Tennessee, several panelists said.
Despite broadband’s stated availability to 90 percent of Tennessee citizens, only 55 percent have adopted broadband. What accounts for this great disparity?
“Available is not synonymous with affordable,” said Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies. He cited affordability as a major hindrance to adoption.
Marema recently asked kids at a Tennessee school if they used social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Almost every hand shot into the air.
When asked how many had a computer at home, however, only a few hands were raised. Marema added that in households making less than $25,000 annually, 34 percent cited cost as their main barrier to broadband adoption. In households earning more than $50,000 the number was only 5 percent.
Affordability and the perceived need for broadband are the two biggest factors in adoption said panelists. With the deadline for the national broadband plan just 60 days away, the question is: what needs to be done to overcome these barriers?
For some in attendance in Memphis, however, the question was: should anything be done at all?
During the open question and answer portion, several citizens expressed concern that government involvement would just be another case of meddling destined to derail free-market economics.
“It is not our effort or desire to stifle anything as it relates to these emerging technologies,” responded Commissioner Clyburn.
These general concerns were more explicitly expressed on the topic of net neutrality. Wouldn’t intervention or regulation by the government discourage investment by major providers who could lose out?
“What we have to be careful of is that it stays open and free and dynamic and that it is not controlled,” agreed FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps. “Nobody is going to tell you where to go and how to get there and that’s the beauty of the thing.”
“[However,] you have to let companies do something called reasonable network management,” Copps said.
Beside these concerns, several citizens wanted to know what they could do to facilitate the adoption process.
“You make sure your public servants, your elected officials know how important this issue is to you,” said Copps.