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Digital Inclusion

Digital Literacy Legend and Rural Telecommunications Congress Board Member Gene Crick Dies

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Gene Crick, a longtime broadband evangelist, died of a heart attack at home in Bastrop, Texas, on August 15.

Gene spent more than four decades advocating for broadband in the United States and around the world. He set up the first free public internet facilities in Texas, designed grant programs for community networking, developed pilot programs for community networking and telehealth, and advised state and federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit organizations on broadband issues.

Gene presented his rural internet road show for rural leaders and citizens across Texas as part of the launch of the $1.5 billion Texas Infrastructure Fund in the mid-1990s. His message was that locals could do great things for themselves and others once they were online. He was also on the founding boards of the Association for Community Networking in 1993 and the Rural Telecom Congress in 1997.  (See more details here.)

A Global Win-Win

This list barely hints at the range of his impact. More important than any single accomplishment was his commitment to the internet as a force for good. As a vocal leader of the community networking movement since before the free-nets emerged in the 1980s, he articulated the vision – shared by most early adopters of online community capacity building – of a global “win-win” in which all members of the human family could participate in the global internet economy and achieve the peace and prosperity that broadband makes possible. In other words, he thought globally and acted locally.

Gene raised awareness among rural and vulnerable populations about how broadband could empower them to seek equity of opportunity and promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. He was always humorous and generous, and he had a heart as big as Texas. He was chagrined at the destruction of policies that promoted equal opportunity, including net neutrality and citizens’ rights to privacy and control over their own information.

One of those good folks who worked for the benefit of all, Gene tried to discover best practices, amid evolving technologies, politics and public perceptions, for teaching people to use the internet to help themselves and others.

Meeting Today’s Challenges

During the 1990s, Gene presented at Apple-sponsored community networking conferences with Steve Snow of Charlotte’s Web and Pat Finn of La Plaza Telecommunity Learning Center, founders of the first two World Wide Web–based community networks. But as ISPs proliferated, technology corporations lost their interest in community networking.

In 2019, good people are challenged to have a voice on the internet and stand up for what they believe in. Civil discourse online has been overwhelmed by trolls and bad actors. Meaningful, measurable “broadband best practices” are badly needed.

Perhaps the tide is turning. Founders of the internet and the WWW, such as Tim Berners-Lee and several tech billionaires, are becoming increasingly vocal about corporate and governmental abuses that diminish the internet’s economic and social potential. There is a new movement to return to the original vision – Gene’s original vision – of using the internet to bring people together for the good of all, instead of driving them apart for the political or economic benefit of a few. Let’s hope Big Tech can give us new hope for a positive, connected future in partnership with all members of the human family.

Gene was always humble and was never negative, despite witnessing the dwindling of his vision for a connected world of good folks working together for the global common good. He was a good man and will be sorely missed.

Frank Odasz, president of Lone Eagle Consulting, knew Gene Crick for more than 25 years and was a fellow board member of the Rural Telecom Congress until Gene’s untimely end. Contact him at Frank@lone-eagles.com.

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2019 edition of Broadband Communities magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

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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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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Digital Inclusion

FCC Says 5 Million Households Now Enrolled in Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The $3.2 billion program provides broadband and device subsidies to eligible low-income households.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

August 30, 2021—The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday that five million households have enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

The $3.2-billion program, which launched in May, provides a broadband subsidy of $50 per month to eligible low-income households and $75 per month for those living on native tribal lands, as well as a one-time reimbursement on a device. Over 1160 providers are participating, the FCC said, who are reimbursed the cost to provide the discounted services.

The agency has been updating the public on the number of participating households for the program. In June, the program was at just over three million and had passed four million last month. The program was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“Enrolling five million households into the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in a little over three months is no small feat,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of nearly 30,000 individuals and organizations who signed up as volunteer outreach partners.”

Rosenworcel added that conversations with partners and the FCC’s analysis shows the need for “more granular data” to bring these opportunities to more eligible families.

The program’s strong demand was seen as far back as March.

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