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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.

Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Broadband's Impact

USC, CETF Collaborate on Research for Broadband Affordability

Advisory panel includes leaders in broadband and a chief economist at the FCC.

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Hernan Galperin of USC's Annenberg School

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2021 – Researchers from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the California Emerging Technology Fund is partnering to recommend strategies for bringing affordable broadband to all Americans.

In a press release on Tuesday, the university’s school of communications and journalism and the CETF will be guided by an expert advisory panel, “whose members include highly respected leaders in government, academia, foundations and non-profit and consumer-focused organizations.”

Members of the advisory panel include a chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, digital inclusion experts, broadband advisors to governors, professors and deans, and other public interest organizations.

“With the federal government and states committing billions to broadband in the near term, there is a unique window of opportunity to connect millions of low-income Americans to the infrastructure they need to thrive in the 21st century,” Hernan Galperin, a professor at the school, said in the release.

“However, we need to make sure public funds are used effectively, and that subsidies are distributed in an equitable and sustainable manner,” he added. “This research program will contribute to achieve these goals by providing evidence-based recommendations about the most cost-effective ways to make these historic investments in broadband work for all.”

The CETF and USC have collaborated before on surveys about broadband adoption. In a series of said surveys recently, the organizations found disparities along income levels, as lower-income families reported lower levels of technology adoption, despite improvement over the course of the pandemic.

The surveys also showed that access to connected devices was growing, but racial minorities are still disproportionately impacted by the digital divide.

The collaboration comes before the House is expected to vote on a massive infrastructure package that includes $65 billion for broadband. Observers and experts have noted the package’s vision for flexibility, but some are concerned about the details of how that money will be spent going forward.

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Broadband's Impact

Technology Policy Institute Introduces Data Index to Help Identify Connectivity-Deprived Areas

The Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple datasets to try to get a better understanding of well- and under-connected areas in the U.S.

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Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute

WASHINGTON, September 16, 2021 – The Technology Policy Institute introduced Thursday a broadband data index that it said could help policymakers study areas across the country with inadequate connectivity.

The TPI said the Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple broadband datasets to compare overall connectivity “objectively and consistently across any geographic areas.” It said it will be adding it soon into its TPI Broadband Map.

The BCI uses a “machine learning principal components analysis” to take into account the share of households that can access fixed speeds the federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload and 100/25 – which is calculated based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data with the American Community Survey – while also using download speed data from Ookla, Microsoft data for share of households with 25/3, and the share of households with a broadband subscription, which comes from the American Community Survey.

The BCI has a range of zero to 10, where zero is the worst connected and 10 is the best. It found that Falls Church, Virginia was the county with the highest score with the following characteristic: 99 percent of households have access to at least 100/25, 100 percent of households connect to Microsoft services at 25/3, the average fixed download speed is 243 Mbps in Ookla in the second quarter of this year, and 94 percent of households have a fixed internet connection.

Meanwhile, the worst-connected county is Echols County in Georgia. None of the population has access to a fixed connection of 25/3, which doesn’t include satellite connectivity, three percent connect to Microsoft’s servers at 25/3, the average download speed is 7 Mbps, and only 47 percent of households have an internet connection. It notes that service providers won $3.6 million out of the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide service in this county.

“Policymakers could use this index to identify areas that require a closer look. Perhaps any county below, say, the fifth percentile, for example, would be places to spend effort trying to understand,” the TPI said.

“We don’t claim that this index is the perfect indicator of connectivity, or even the best one we can create,” TPI added. “In some cases, it might magnify errors, particularly if multiple datasets include errors in the same area.

“We’re still fine-tuning it to reduce error to the extent possible and ensure the index truly captures useful information. Still, this preliminary exercise shows that it is possible to obtain new information on connectivity with existing datasets rather than relying only on future, extremely expensive data.”

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