“Despite widespread deployment, nearly a third of Americans have not embraced broadband,” said FCC Commissioner Baker this morning at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Baker spoke at the Digital Inclusion Summit, an event co-hosted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Knight Foundation to offer perspective the state of the nation’s connectivity and a preview up the upcoming National Broadband Plan, due to be delivered to Congress on March 17.
FCC Chairman Genachowski said that there has been the unprecedented “open process” for the Plan, including livestreams of 40 public workshops, 70 posts at blog.broadband.gov that generated thousands of comments. That process has brought “vital points into focus,” said Genachowski. Rural, minorities, disabled, senior, tribal communities are all lagging in broadband adoption and access. “The cost of digital exclusion is high and growing every day,” he said. In fact, a recent study from the Digital Impact Group estimated the aggregate economic cost of digital exclusion at $55 billion per year.
Key news from the Digital Inclusion Summit:
- The FCC and the KnightFoundation announced $100,000 in prizes for a “civic computer programming contest,” “Apps for Inclusion.”
- While eight days remain until the release of the National Broadband Plan (See Broadband.gov), the FCC has indicated that it will include a “National Digital Literacy Corps,” an update to Lifeline and work on building out public, private and nonprofit partnerships.
- The Plan may also include spectrum for free wireless broadband. As reported in Reuters, the FCC may also “dedicate spectrum to free wireless Internet service for some Americans to increase affordable broadband service nationwide. One way of making broadband more affordable is to ‘consider use of spectrum for a free or a very low cost wireless broadband service,” the FCC said in a statement.”
An “Apps for Inclusion” Challenge
Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen presented a summary of the Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, comparing information to basic commodities to good streets and clean water.
“If information is a core need, and if it is to be delivered digitally, then logically to be a fully participating citizen one must have access,” he said.
Ted Olson, Knight Co-Chair, would echo that sentiment later. “Information is as vital as air and water to democratic communities,” said Olson. “Citizens must have it to thrive.”
In voicing his support for broadband and new media literacy, Ibargüen noted a recent study from Pew Internet that the Internet has surpassed newspapers as a primary means of getting news for Americans, including many “non-traditional” means like personal feeds, social media and mobile applications. Ibargüen compared broadband to the national infrastructure projects of past generation. “I can’t wait to build the equivalent of Eisenhower’s highways — or for that matter the railroads under Lincoln,” he said.
The Knight Foundation and FCC Apps for Inclusion Challenge will award cash prices to developers who can create easier online access to services and information. “This contest reflects on three beliefs that are key to our work at Knight Foundation,” said Ibargüen in a prepared release. “First, our ideal of informed, engaged communities; second, our conviction that universal broadband is key to achieving this ideal; and third, our deep interest in using new approaches to connect with innovators.”
The Inclusion Challenge follows the Knight News Challenge, which distributed $5 million dollars for digital innovation. “Citizens should be able to see voting records or campaign contributions,” said Ibargüen after his speech.
“This is an open-ended contest. Like the News Challenge, we don’t know what will come of it,” he said. “I do know that [the Challenge] has been phenomenally successful in generating ideas that we could not have imagined.”
A video montage of the Digital Inclusion Summit from the Knight Blog is embedded below:
Support from Congress, officials on broadband initiatives
Other federal officials and members of Congress were also on hand to share their perspectives on the importance of the broadband plan.
HUD Secretary Donovan spoke of creating “a geography of opportunity” through broadband, working through private, public and nonprofit partnerships. “Too often today we can predict the outcome of a kid’s life by their zip code,” he said.
“With broadband, we can use access to drive other outcomes,” said Secretary Donovan. “The ability to learn is not limited by school or resources available. Seniors and the disabled can get control of their healthcare or get better housing. It is not just about the hardware, the wiring, the computers themselves, it’s about the barriers to actualizing using the technology.”
Secretary Donovan suggested three ways to apply technological innovation where it’s needed:
- local outreach on the specific ways technology can improve lives
- digital literacy training
- workforce development and financial literacy training.
Secretary Donovan said they’ll need to work with nonprofit and private sectors to “bring down the cost of computers and monthly service.” He observed that “our most creative housing developers and civic institutions are nonprofit CDCs. If we’re going to be successful, we need to engage private sector and fundamentally engage that third sector.”
Representative Lee Terry (R-NE), following Commissioner Baker, said that “90% of Nebraskans have access to broadband but “puts an asterisk next to that. It’s 200 kbps. That doesn’t work in 21st Century.” Rep. Lee stated his support for reform of the Universal Service Fund to provide rural broadband.
Using a phrase that might raise some libertarian hackles, FCC Commissioner Copps called Internet access a civil right. “Access denied is opportunity denied,” he said. Full text of Copps’ remarks is available as .doc or PDF at FCC.gov.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) spoke at length about the importance of broadband to civic life and equal access. As the Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang observed, Markey put national broadband charge for FCC in stimulus plan. And, as Kim Hart reported in the Hill, broadband funding from the stimulus has been a contentious topic.
Rep. Markey cited the precedent of E-Rate in improving digital literacy. According to Rep. Markey, 95% of US schools and libraries are now connected to the Internet, up from 14%.
In an alliterative moment, Rep. Markey observed that the “plan is not merely for megabits and megahertz but consumers and community.”
Joey Durel, City-Parish President, spoke about “muni fiber” at Lafayette, Louisiana, where a “citizen-owned utility” company delivers up to 50 Mbps at costs lower to comparable commercial services.
As Durel has said elsewhere, commenting at DSL Reports, Lafayette muni fiber also supports 100Mbps symmetrical P2P.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) said 75% of U.S. employers require prospective employees to apply online. “Affordability is a necessity, not a luxury,” she said. Rep. Matsui referred to the Broadband Affordability Act, which would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to establish a Lifeline Assistance Program for universal broadband adoption to include low-income citizens. Before she spoke, FCC Chairman Genachowski gave Matsui and other members of credit due credit for the inclusion of the USF in the Broadband Plan. “I want you to hear it from me before the tabloids,” he joked.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D0CA) described the importance of connecting to a wider world, removing language barriers. He observed that people are ten times more likely to use the Internet if they’ve gone to college. “What we’re doing in connecting all Americans to broadband is helping those families who are too distant from the rest of us,” he said.
Examples of success for technology education, pleas for connectivity
A diverse set of citizens also spoke at the Summit to share how access to broadband or technology changed their lives. Rhonda Locklear, a housing specialist for the Lumbee Tribe in Pembroke, NC, shared her pain in not being able to provide her child with broadband connectivity he needs for homework. “If our children don’t get what they need, they’re going to be left behind,” she said.
Korean War vet and writer Garrison Phillips talked about how the OATS program engaged and trained seniors in the use of technology. Phillips said he began blogging in his 70s, thanks to digital programs aimed at seniors, and that’s he’s grateful for Net access to information, given the challenges posed by living in a 6th floor walkup.
For AmeriCorps volunteer Alex Kurt, the success of a tech skills program in Minnesota “only highlighted how big the problem really is. For each person I help, two to three more come saying ‘I lost my job. I can’t use a computer,'” he said. More information regarding the program Kurt is involved in is available at wip.technologypower.org.
“I was handicapped. I had to have someone else type my work for me,” said Florence Pearson, Education Director at Head Start in NYC, as quoted on the KnightBlog and pictured on the left with her daughter. “[After training,] all I can see are possibilities for myself and my family. I went in with fear and came out with the motivation to tackle the computer and make my children proud.”
And what does the FCC and broadband mean to Irvin Aviles, a computer technician from Baltimore? “Broad opportunities for a common community,” he said, explaining how training and certification led to employment for the father of four at Time Warner Cable in Baltimore.
Launching a National Digital Literacy Corps
“If today’s disparities are not addressed, our digital divide will soon become a digital canyon,” said FCC Commissioner Clyburn, who said a “National Digital Literacy Corps” will be part of the National Broadband Plan.
“Broadband is one of our generation’s most important challenges, primarily because it presents one of our most monumental opportunities,” said Clyburn. Universal broadband and the skills to use it can lower barriers of means and distance to help achieve a more equal opportunity for all Americans.”
According to Clyburn, next week’s Plan will recommend a three-part National Digital Literacy Program that will consist of
- a National Digital Literacy Corps
- a one-time investment to bolster the capacity of libraries and community centers
- an Online Skills portal for free, basic digital skills training.
Why? “As political dialogue moves to online forums; as the Internet becomes the comprehensive source of real-time news and information; and as the easiest access to our government becomes email or a Web site, then those who are offline become increasingly disenfranchised,” said Clyburn. “Until recently, not having broadband was simply an inconvenience. Now it’s becoming essential to opportunity and even citizenship. As I have said before, if the adoption gap is not addressed soon, today’s digital divide will soon transform into a digital canyon.”
“Altogether, 93 million Americans do not have broadband at home. And adoption rates are much lower among certain populations, including rural Americans [50%], the elderly [65%], persons with disabilities [42%], low-income Americans [40%], African Americans [59%], and Hispanics [49%]. Among the 13 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 who do not have broadband at home, 6 million are either Hispanic or African American. These disparities won’t just disappear over time if we sit back and do nothing.”
Full text of Commissioner Clyburn’s announcement of the Digital Literacy Corps is available as a PDF.
Principles of the National Broadband Plan
“Targeted solutions should aim to direct resources at populations less likely to be online with broadband,” said Clyburn. Collaborative solutions acknowledge the need for government leadership and coordination in this area; but also rely on the private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors. And local solutions understand that, while the decision to adopt is an individual one, the path to adoption is social.”
“The staff has come up with a number of recommendations with these goals in mind,” said Clyburn. “To help with cost, the Plan recommends expanding low income Universal Service support to broadband, and exploring using spectrum for a free or very low cost wireless service. Partnerships between the public, private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors, can help address the relevance barrier by encouraging comprehensive solutions that combine hardware, service, training and content, and by conducting outreach and awareness campaigns that target underserved communities.”
Applying “Gov2.0” in practice
The use of social media and other collaboration technology online has been notable in many branches of government. The FCC launched Reboot.gov earlier this year, following OpenInternet.gov and Broadband.gov.
Even if FCC.gov remains dated, the FCC itself has moved quickly to use crowdsourcing tools for questions, @FCC took questions about the digital inclusion at summit using the event’s #BBplan hashtag or using email sent to email@example.com. (Authors of “questions from Twitter,” however, were not unattributed.) Several of the tweeted questions were answered and webcast at FCC.gov/live. That virtuous feedback loop using a combination of online collaborative tools and a livestream is one of the better examples of so-called “government 2.0” technology I’ve seen in action.
The FCC and Knight Foundation also distributed USB flash drives with PDFs of remarks, reports and relevant links, along with paper versions of the same. That move was both digitally savvy and helpful to members of the media or general audience.
Following the broadband debate ahead
As Amy Gahran pointed out in her post on the National Broadband Plan at the Knight Digital Media Center, this moment presents opportunities for community news and civic engagement.
Given the stakeholders involved in this project, the months ahead will likely be contentious as well. Gahran is spot on in this observation:
“Large, established businesses such as cable companies, broadcasters, and telcos have much at stake and are throwing substantial lobbying muscle toward protecting their interests. Expect that the there will be changes to the plan between the time it goes to committee and the version that eventually makes it to the floor of Congress.
Gahran shared events and resources that will be of use to readers in the D.C. area and beyond in following both the debate around broadband policy and implementation.
- The National Broadband Plan will be posted at Broadband.gov next week.
- On March 16, Congressional tech staffers will discuss”Setting the Table for the National Broadband Plan: Where to from Here?” Representatives of Congressional committees connected to the plan will be present, including the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
- The above event is associated with BroadbandBreakfast.com, a useful blog devoted to broadband coverage.
- Numerous broadband task forces, commissions, or authorities offer more local information.