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Experts Debate Civil Rights Issues in Context of Broadband

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2010 – Broadband experts discussed civil rights issues surrounding a speedy internet and how best to close the digital divide at an event last week hosted by the Minority Media & Telecom Council at Howard University.

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Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected. See below.

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2010 – Broadband experts discussed civil rights issues in the context of how best to close the digital divide at an event last week hosted by the Minority Media & Telecom Council and held at Howard University.

Blair Levin, an FCC alumni who has been tapped to oversee the current plans to get broadband throughout the nation, said he wants to ensure that the policies for the plan will not contribute to a second-class citizenship and digital literacy will not be denied to anyone.

Levin told attendees at the Broadband and Social Justice Summit that broadband to certain communities will not automatically remove the digital divide, but will remove the barrier to creating more equal opportunity.  He noted that connecting those previously excluded from the internet can bring real results in education, employment, the nation’s physical health, political participation and civic engagement.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, 74 percent of internet users involved themselves in the online political process, he noted.

“When we think about civic engagement, we must recognize that the internet is a library. It’s a television.  It’s a telephone and a public square,” said Levin.  “The uncomfortable questions we have to come to terms with however is, why do fewer than 40 percent of households that make under $20,000 an year have broadband at home, while 80 percent subscribe to premium television?”

While part of the answer lies in affordability, another part lies in the importance of communities adopting technologies together. As Levin joked, e-mailing yourself is not that much fun and Skyping yourself is downright depressing.

“The TV/internet gap also suggests concern about the skills needed to participate in what the internet can offer,” he said.

Levin announced three ways to address the challenge of bridging the gap – social infrastructure, social innovation and social purpose media.

Levin wrapped up his opening statements with a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.” “There can be no gainsaying about the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today…That is, a technological revolution with the impact of automation and cybernation…Modern man through scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance. Through our genius we have made this world a neighborhood. And yet we — we have not yet had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn gave her keynote address during a packed lunch reception, saying broadband is a necessity not a luxury.

She stressed that “it is important to approach the adoption challenge from the point of view of the non adopters, and not from a set of pre conceived notions of what we assume their needs are.”

Clyburn called this challenge the “last half mile”-  the distance between each person who has not integrated broadband into their lives and the physical infrastructure right outside their door.

She stirred the audience when she spoke about the ability of broadband to deliver economic empowerment and noted that some new FCC data show that the percentage of people of color adopting broadband in their homes is rising again.

“How can we ensure that current low barriers to entry remain low in order to prevent yet another communications model that has people of color once again on the outside looking in?,” she asked.

Broadband Education Literacy and Civic Engagement

During a panel discussion, Nicole Turner-Lee, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said civic engagement is defined by communities organizing and accessing information that is pertinent to their communities.  She focused on the need to mash literacy education goals with broadband deployment in order to create a multiplier effect.

Jane Cabarrus, president of the North Hampton County Branch of the NAACP, said there’s no broadband in her home in Weirwood, Va., adding that a combination of many deployment and digital literacy programs will be needed to give her community equal opportunity.

David Honig, president and executive director of the MMTC, added that it’s necessary to address the differences in subsets of people.

Russel Frisby, a partner at Stinson Morrison Heckler, reiterated the importance of incentivizing the private sector to aid in the government’s efforts.

Moustafa Mourad from One Economy said for disadvantaged citizens to adopt, they must find their own value in broadband.  “People will only participate when issues affect them in a visceral way,” he said.

Former FCC Commissioner Deborah Powell Tate recommended extending funding for the Universal Service Fund to broadband.  She also believed that the agency would be making great strides to upgrade the e-Rate, Lifeline and Link Up programs.  She also added that since children are the early adopters of broadband, schools should allocate funding to teach children how to navigate the web in a safe way.

Broadcasting and Journalism in a Broadband World

The second discussion group began with comments from Richard Prince, editor of Journal-isms, at the Maynard Institute of Journalism Education. Price pointed to the efforts of the Knight Foundation in creating enriched online environment with wiki tools for access to local public documents.

Janette Dates, the dean of Howard University School of Communications, said that while Facebook and Twitter may be forms of communications, they cannot be referred to as journalism. Journalists must well trained and know how to access information that is fair and balanced, she said.

The panel also discussed digital media literacy, where Prince pointed out the vast amount of information available but the lack of tools to evaluate it properly.  Honig suggested that broadband and media research and science should be a 10th grade level science.

Jane Mago, general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, and Fernando LaGuarda, the vice president of external affairs and policy counselor for Time Warner Cable, agreed that there is still a sustainable business model in local news.  Companies need to look to the local cable news models and think about where the internet creates opportunity, they said.

Andrew Schwartzman from the Media Access Project believes that some model of government subsidies might be important for this era of new journalism, almost like the public broadcasting subsidy.  He pointed out that in Europe, government subsidies for journalism institutions are normal.

John Lawson from ION Media Networks said wireless penetration among minorities is very high. He added that with new technologies developed by firms such as LG and Samsung, entrepreneurs have figured out how to deliver TV signals to cell phones traveling up to 100 miles an hour.

Net Neutrality and Digital Divide

The afternoon panel addressed the digital divide and preserving an open internet. Honig noted that only 63 percent of the country has true access to broadband at home. He asked where the money needed to close the digital divide should come from.

The group Free Press has said that it would take approximately $50 billion to provide traditional broadband to every home. Honig also raised the question of whether broadband should be considered a fundamental right.

Rick Chessen, senior v.p. of law and regulatory policy at the NCTA, believed that there was more ground for agreement on the principle of transparency than there was on the principle of nondiscrimination.  He believes the crux of the argument behind nondiscrimination is tring to dtermine who is responsible for paying for the necessary improvements to the Internet, adding that it likely could be consumers who absorb these costs.

The summit ended with statements from Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Strickling reminded the audience about the second round of funding for broadband grants and the new notice for available funds from NTIA and the Rural Utility Service. He also praised the development of Broadband Match at match.broadbandusa.gov.  He explained how the website is essentially e-Harmony for broadband.  The site lets applicants for Recovery Act grants find potential other partners. Large-scale institutions can pair with community centers, and infrastructure providers can pair with content providers.

Editor’s Note: Owing to an editing error, this article orginally stated that Commissioner Clyburn said that broadband was luxury, not a necessity. In fact – as the article now reflects – Clyburn said the opposite: broadband is a necessity, and NOT a luxury.

As Deputy Editor, Chris Naoum is curating expert opinions, and writing and editing articles on Broadband Breakfast issue areas. Chris served as Policy Counsel for Future of Music Coalition, Legal Research Fellow for the Benton Foundation and law clerk for a media company, and previously worked as a legal clerk in the office of Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. He received his B.A. from Emory University and his J.D. and M.A. in Television Radio and Film Policy from Syracuse University.

Broadband's Impact

FCC to Vote On Emergency Broadband Benefit Policies By Mid-May: Rosenworcel

The agency is expected to vote on policies for the $3.2B program by mid-May to ensure proper implementation, chairwoman says.

Derek Shumway

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April 14, 2021 – Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Tuesday the agency will be voting by mid-May on policies to deliver the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which has received over 9,000 interested institutions through its portal.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that passed Congress in December 2020, which provides up to $50 in a monthly internet discount for families and $75 for tribal lands to access broadband internet.

It’s “the nation’s largest ever broadband affordability program,” Rosenworcel said Tuesday on a virtual panel hosted by Allvanza, an advocacy group for Latinxs and underserved communities within the technology, telecommunications and innovation industries; the Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC); and the Asian Pacific American Advocate group (OCA).

It’s “designed to make sure we get every household in this country connected to high-speed Internet service because this pandemic has proven like nothing before,” she added.

The FCC made a sign-up portal on its website to determine interest in the program, and over 9,000 institutions have signed up to date, Rosenworcel said, adding she hopes the policies for the EBB can address the homework gap by extending internet subsidies normally reserved for schools and libraries to households.

Evelyn Remaley, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator, said minority-aimed broadband initiatives have done great work in bringing together providers and companies with minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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Education

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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