Creating a National Broadband Strategy for All Americans

People of color say a lack of need and a lack of access are the biggest reasons they're not connected; we have a fix for that. By: Cornell Belcher, The Root Op-Ed

For more than a decade, policymakers and community leaders have observed a so-called "digital divide," with Internet adoption by communities of color lagging the broader population. In December 2009, the Pew Internet Project found Internet usage in 2008 to be 76 percent among white Americans, 64 percent among Latinos and 63 percent among blacks.

The disparity between these groups is even greater when the figures for home broadband adoption are isolated; home broadband adoption by African Americans, for example, was only 46 percent as of April 2009, according to Pew. Given the importance of the Internet to accessing information and opportunities in our society, politicians and practitioners have long sought to understand and close these gaps.

Public and private efforts to achieve universal broadband adoption appear to be having a positive impact. We are seeing increasing numbers of African Americans and Latinos accessing the Internet for work, play, education and entertainment. And as we recently learned through a landmark poll of some 900 people of color, most black and brown Americans are ready, willing and eager to join the ranks of the connected. However, we are also learning that as usage evolves so must our efforts to provide universal access--a much greater emphasis must be put on private portals rather than the public portals we've been focused on over the last decade.

We possess the tools and the experience needed to achieve 100 percent broadband adoption across our nation in the next decade, wiping out any remaining digital divides. Such progress will benefit our entire country, by expanding opportunities and advancing our national competitiveness. Our poll results offered helpful lessons and clues to achieving the president's goal of a Broadband America to the policymakers developing our national broadband strategy.

It may be surprising to learn that the single biggest reason that African Americans and Latinos are not subscribing to broadband is not cost-related. Rather, our poll found that the most consistent reason given by non-broadband users is that they do not see the value in the Internet and therefore have no perceived need to go online. This challenge should be easily surmounted. Already, efforts by the president and other community leaders to extol the benefits of broadband are having a positive impact.

With respect to broadband adoption, Internet content is king. Younger minorities expressed interest in educational content, online gaming and sports information. Older citizens in communities of color value health information and the ability of broadband Internet to connect them to their families and communities. Heads of households see broadband as increasingly critical to their jobs and career opportunities.

The second given reason for remaining offline was lack of access to computers or Web-enabled devices. Public libraries and community centers offer one solution to this problem, but one that has significant limitations as usage norms continue to evolve into a more socially integrated activity. Another solution comes from organizations such as the nonprofit group, One Economy Corporation. This organization makes low-interest loans available to residents of public housing in Baltimore to purchase home computers. Nearly all (49 out of 50) families paid off their loans and gained access to essential tools for 21st-century success.

Third, disconnected minorities expressed concern that they lacked the digital literacy to succeed online. While this remains a problem, K-12 curricula increasingly impart these skills on the next generation, while community colleges have had success with adults via continuing-education classes. One Economy's Digital Connectors program immerses teenagers in low-income communities in technology training to help them in school and build workplace skills.

Of course, the cost of broadband and broadband-enabling devices still remains a barrier for many. In our survey, keeping the Internet affordable scored near the top in the open-ended question: "If there were one thing that you could change that would make you more likely to want to access the Internet, what would that one thing be?" Policymakers possess many tools to ensure access is affordable, from repurposing the high-cost portion of the Universal Service Fund to broadband stimulus grants to reducing taxes on the telecom services that underlie broadband networks.

When asked about "one thing you could change to make it easier to access the Internet," the No. 1 answer given (18 percent) was "speed of connection," or making online content load faster. We know how to do that, too, with policies that encourage investment and enable effective network management.

Of course, in some areas, broadband is simply not available. The FCC estimates about $350 billion in new investment will be needed to reach all of the United States with adequately robust networks. Some of this may come from the $7 billion in the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act, but the lion's share will need to come from private sources.

This study clearly shows that there is a deep understanding among communities of color as to the value broadband can bring to them in fully engaging in the promise of America. It also shows that--to paraphrase former President Bill Clinton--there is nothing wrong with broadband in America that cannot be fixed by what is right with broadband in America. The FCC brought together some of the smartest minds in telecommunications policy to craft a national plan, and their fact-gathering process has been a model of exhaustive, inclusive, effective government. America faces many challenges over the next decade, but ubiquitous broadband will help enable all Americans to provide the solutions.

Cornell Belcher is president of brilliant corners Research & Strategies and a renowned strategist in national politics.

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