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Digital Inclusion

In the Context of the Global Digital Divide, Language and Gender Differences Need Attention

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Screenshot from the webinar

November 3, 2020 – The digital divides of language and gender are too often overlooked in considering matters associated with the digital divide, particularly globally, said panelists at a Wilson Center event on Friday.

“The biggest internet barrier to entry is translation,” said University of California at Berkey Professor Steven Weber, who is currently working on a paper to determine to what extent language is a digital barrier.

Weber, while acknowledging the benefits of language diversity, referenced the biblical Tower of Babel story, saying that when God confounded the people’s languages, he did so for the express purpose of creating transaction costs and economic friction.

Although we have many machine translation devices, the quality of translations across languages is not universal, Weber said. Some machine translation devices have excellent algorithms because they come from high-resource languages, which essentially are languages that are well-documented.

Machine learning systems drive this machine translation. Most are supervised machine learning systems that use training data sets labeled by human beings, or existing translations. This means that low-resource languages like Swahili or Urdu end up with poor algorithms because they lack documentation—in fact, Weber said, a five order of magnitude difference exists between the best and the worst algorithms.

Weber is concerned that language documentation and translation is going to map onto areas of privilege versus areas without privilege, creating a “flat world” for high resource driven languages and a greater barriers for low resource languages.

United Nations social affairs expert Sukaina Al-Nasrawi is concerned about the digital divide in Arab regions. She said the numbers show a significant difference in developing and using digital tech between developing and developed countries.

While Arab regions are performing comparatively better in the information communication technology development, she said they are still behind the world average in basically every category except mobile tech.

The digital gender divide is even worse. Worldwide, the gap is 31 percent and is the worst in the Arab region. The gender gap for mobile ownership is 9 percent and for mobile ownership with internet access its 21 percent.

Al-Nasrawi urged a focus on economic and political participation, and stressed that connectivity provides opportunities that can “steer the wheel of women’s empowerment,” even if only by changing attitudes.

Weber pointed out that throughout history whenever a new technology is introduced, the first few iterations do not always benefit people. He offered the railroad, which helped those living at crossroads and devastated the towns it passed by, and shipping containers, which benefitted people living in places like Los Angeles, but increased shipping expenses in places that were “on the grid.”

Though the Arab region may eventually be able to close all their digital divides, Al-Nasrawi said that if development continues at this pace the region will need more than 140 years to bridge this gap, “which is alarming.”

Zena Kebede, technical program manager of Microsoft’s Airband initiative, advocated for more innovation in the private sector and government partnerships to bridge this gap. He stressed that government involvement was key because in many countries they are usually the first stakeholders to invest in connectivity because others are unable to do so.

Melissa Griffith, non-resident research fellow at UC Berkeley and adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies, moderated this event.

Reporter Liana Sowa grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. She studied editing and publishing as a writing fellow at Brigham Young University, where she mentored upperclassmen on neuroscience research papers. She enjoys reading and journaling, and marathon-runnning and stilt-walking.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

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Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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