The incoming chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, understands that the digital divide is not a late-1990s relic of the technology revolution. He wants to address the fact that too many people in urban and rural communities across the country still have only limited access to the internet. It’s important the public, through their elected officials, helps Pai succeed.
For close to 10 years, concepts such as the “internet of things” and “hyper-connectivity” have been used to describe people’s relationship with technology. Many people complain about the frequency of operating system upgrades and delete new phone apps almost as fast they download them. But amid this seemingly complete immersion in the internet there are many people who are suffering from “under-connectivity” rather than being overwhelmed by hyper-connectivity.
This is more than a matter of inconvenience. Lack of access to reliable, broadband internet service – which is especially prevalent in low-income, and majority black and Latino communities — means people in these communities are not fully connected to the essentials many people take for granted; collaborative homework assignments and study guides, timely information on job openings for job seekers, real time access to customer and information for small businesses, and online shopping and connection to friends and family for people with mobility and health challenges. The result is that people in these urban and rural communities must contend with yet another aspect of disenfranchisement from the vitality and opportunity of 21st century American life.
To tackle the challenge of making sure everyone is connected to the internet, public policy needs to address two issues; access and adoption. We need not only the infrastructure for broadband access in places where it does not now fully exist, but we also need to be sure people have the devices in their hands to take advantage of broadband internet availability. Highways without on-ramps make no sense. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, people of color and low-income communities are more likely to be “smartphone dependent.” But, their smartphones are used for much more than social media, general web browsing, texting and emailing. They’re also used to take online classes, submit job applications, and get health information.
Last fall, then-Commissioner Pai debuted his Digital Empowerment Agenda which outlined an ambitious agenda to bridge the persistent digital divide. Having long been interested in expanding access to technology to people of all walks of life, I applaud this initiative. More recently, Chairman Pai undertook a review of the Lifeline Program, a subsidy initiative designed to help providers offer lower costs to phone bills in our communities. This goes to the heart of accessing the internet – the on-ramps.
Importantly, the chairman did not dissolve this program. Rather, he took action to slow the applications for a more detailed review of nine of more than 900 providers in the program. This is a sample of less than 1 percent to ensure the program is well administered. His leadership and practical management will help ensure the Lifeline Program is consistently monitored. That way, the program can be updated and adjusted for maximum effectiveness. With technology advancing so rapidly, it is critical to be more pro-active than reactive. Chairman Pai clearly wants to continue to provide these services to families and businesses and to close loopholes to stem abusers of the subsidy program.
In his first month on the job, Pai has signaled a commitment to continue his efforts to address access and adoption issues that are central to bridging the digital divide. Next week, Pai will testify before House and Senate Committees on his plans to create a more transparent agency designed to provide quality and effective broadband access for all. This is the time to encourage the FCC and our representation in Washington, D.C., to continue to focus time and energy on the expansion of broadband usage for urban and rural America.
The American people’s frustration with being ignored by public officials is more evident than ever, especially in minority communities. If there is one area where Republicans and Democrats can work together it should be in modest but meaningful ways to make sure that all Americans can fully access and take advantage of today’s online capabilities. It is about time the concept of the “digital divide” truly becomes a relic of the past and all Americans can benefit from broadband access and help keep individual citizens and the country as a whole on the forefront of innovation.