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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.

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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Digital Inclusion

As Senate Passes Infrastructure Measure, Non-Profit Groups Push for Digital Equity Bill of Rights

Join Sunne Wright McPeak at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday for a discussion about the push for digital equity.

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Photo of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, a sponsor of the Digital Equity Act

August 10, 2021—A petition calling for a Digital Equity Bill of Rights to inspire policymakers to craft sustainable, affordable solutions to bridging the digital divide has garnered more than 100 groups and 2,000 individuals signing on to the proposal. The petition, led by the California Emerging Technology Fund, was released prior to a bipartisan vote on infrastructure legislation in the Senate on Tuesday.

Portions of the Digital Equity Act of 2021, S. 2018 sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, originally introduced in 2019 and reintroduced in June, are likely to be included in the final infrastructure bill.

“The future of our next generation and America’s ability to compete globally is at stake,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, president and CEO of CETF, which has been focused for 15 years now on bridging the digital divide.

Join Sunne Wright McPeak and Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark for Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, August 11, 2021, 12 Noon ET, on “A Call for a Digital Equity Bill of Rights.”

Much like the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights that most Americans are familiar with, the Digital Equity Bill of Rights also had 10 amendments designed to provide future legislation with a framework of rights.

The first enumerated right states that “all residents have the right to broadband that is sufficient and reliable.” It explains that speed standards should not be pigeonholed to a specific rate—rather, they must be sufficient for all people to support distance learning, telehealth, and remote work “by a majority of households online simultaneously with an increasing need for symmetrical network speeds.”

Other amendments include ones that state that broadband should be affordable, improve quality of life, attract investment, and enables participation in democracy. Though the conversation surrounding such a bill of rights is nothing new, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is evident in the bill’s wording. McPeak and CETF have argued that digital access is a “21st Century Civil Right” for more than a decade.

“To close the digital divide there has to be digital inclusion and everything that we do, because the outcome is getting to digital equity,” McPeak explained to Broadband Breakfast; digital equity is the result of making sure that everyone has access to affordable Internet and computing devices, and gets the training needed to compete in the 21st Century global economy.

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