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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Broadband Access - A Civil Right in the Digital Age

Published:  March 22, 2010
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(Note: This is a guest post provided by Judy Lubin and also cross posted at OpenSalon

In the coming days the FCC's national broadband plan will no doubt be intensely scrutinized by the multitude of players vying to influence the government's new media and telecommunications agenda.  As the expected debate over government involvement and private interests ensues, the focus must remain on the needs of Americans who are disadvantaged by a lack of broadband services.
In a world increasingly dependent on fast and reliable access to the Internet, broadband creates and facilitates opportunities to enhance nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From education to jobs, life-saving health information to new business tools and ever expanding avenues for civic engagement and political participation, broadband is the enabling technology.
Whether its enabling small businesses to operate with low overhead, helping an unemployed worker train online for a new career or allowing families and friends to stay connected or locate missing relatives after natural disasters the economic, social and even humanitarian implications of broadband access are far and wide.
But the fact remains that too many of our fellow Americans have yet to realize the benefits of broadband. This is especially true for  minorities, seniors, people with disabilities and low-income, tribal and rural communities. Sixty-five percent of Americans have a broadband connection at home but among African Americans its only 59 percent and Hispanics, 49 percent. The disparities are wider across age, income and education. For example, among households with an annual income of $20,000 or less, fewer than 40 percent have a broadband connection compared to 91 percent of households with an income of more than $75,000 a year.
As highlighted in a recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, populations that have historically endured social and economic hardships could reap the greatest benefits from broadband. Yet they are most often without access to this increasingly essential service.
The Internet is an engine of creativity, innovation and opportunity. But without government leadership to reduce barriers to adoption, the inequities that the Internet can help to eliminate may in fact worsen as those without access become second class digital citizens disconnected from the opportunities for full participation in our society.
In our information-driven and technologically-dependent society, the costs of digital exclusion are high, not just for those without  broadband access, but for our country as a whole. According to a study by Digital Impact Group and Econsult Corporation, more than 100 million people in the U.S. are without broadband service because they do not have access, cannot afford it, lack the skills to use it or are unaware of its benefits. Submitted as part of the record for National Broadband Plan, the study estimates the current costs of digital exclusion at over $55 billion per year across a number of key categories including health care, education, government, public safety and economic opportunity.
Thirty-six percent of non-adopters point to cost as the major barrier to broadband adoption. For many low-income families, the $40-$50 monthly fee for high-speed Internet is simply too prohibitive. In the face of a slow economic recovery, rising service costs coupled with less competition and choice of providers, broadband may be quickly moving out of the reach of many Americans at a time when they could most benefit from the service. In a study released this month by the Social Science Research Council, 22 percent of "non-adopters" say they had to cancel their service because of job loss, technical problems or unexpected hidden fees.
Cost is not the only inhibitor--22 percent of non-adopters surveyed by the FCC point to digital illiteracy or lack of computer skills as a barrier. Florence Pearson, a mother and Headstart education director in New York City credits the nonprofit Per Scholas' free computer training program for helping her get over her fear of "breaking the computer."
Speaking at America's Digital Inclusion Summit two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., Pearson said of the Internet: "All I can see now are the opportunities for my family."  Pearson and her family illustrate why funding to support programs that equip Americans with the skills to participate in our digital economy must be part of any national plan to close the digital divide.
In addition to improving access, lowering costs and teaching computer skills, the value of broadband must be better communicated to increase adoption among minorities, seniors and other groups that may not yet see the potential for broadband to improve their lives. Nineteen percent of non-adopters surveyed by the FCC said lack of relevance was the reason for not subscribing to broadband. More culturally relevant content, opportunities for skills building and access to public services could help in this area.
As part of its broadband plan the FCC has outlined a number of promising steps including public/private partnerships that support nonprofit organizations working to improve broadband access and teach digital literacy skills among non-adopters served by federal agencies.  The agency has also proposed using the Universal Service Fund (USF) as a mechanism for paying for and speeding broadband deployment and adoption in poor and rural areas.
Through the USF, which was established to subsidize telephone service, network providers will receive government subsidies to provide broadband access in areas that private companies may otherwise view as too costly for network investments. It remains to be seen whether the agency will propose measures to increase competition and opportunities for small business participation in an industry dominated by a handful of large cable and telephone companies.
A national outreach and awareness campaign to communicate the benefits of broadband to underserved communities is also among the FCC's recommendations delivered to Congress on March 16th. The FCC is aiming for 90 percent of all U.S. households to have broadband at home by 2020. Targeted outreach to communities of color and underserved populations is key to ensuring they are not left behind and that the agency meets its goals.
If remarks from FCC commissioners in recent weeks are any indication, the agency understands that universal access to the Internet will drive social change in the 21st century and is essential for a digital future that includes all of America. "Everyone must have equal opportunity in this digital age," said Commissioner Michael Copps at the Digital Inclusion Summit. "It's a civil right to have access."
Bio: Judy Lubin is a writer and president of Public Square Communications, a Washington, D.C. area strategic communications, policy and social marketing firm focusing on health, civic engagement, media access and women's issues.

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