Commentary: America a nation of broadband haves and have-nots

FOR MILLIONS of us, the internet is a place where we can express ourselves, our hopes and dreams for our family, and connect with the resources we need to build a sustainable future. The internet is a platform where people of all different backgrounds, incomes and ethnicities can interact and learn from one another – on equal footing. It is increasingly part of our DNA, which is why we must ensure that all Americans are able to enjoy the benefits of our digital society. A big piece of this puzzle is affordable, universal access to broadband. Unfortunately, many Americans still lack access – 34 million by the Federal Communications Commission’s estimate. This disparity, which is particularly prevalent in rural areas and on tribal lands, limits the ability of these individuals to connect with loved ones across the country, access distance learning, and even receive lifesaving tele-health services.

These aren’t just abstract concepts: People are being left behind. Take, for example, Curtis Brown Jr., who runs a business of customizing action figurines out of his home in Goochland, Va., (population of fewer than 1,000). Unfortunately, Brown’s slow broadband connection hampers his ability to reach and communicate with customers, which, in turn, cuts into his income. And it is not only an urban-vs.-rural problem, it is high income vs. low income. A recent study by the Center for Public Integrity found that families in neighborhoods with median household incomes below $34,800 are five times less likely to have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband than households in areas with a median income above $80,700.

This means that those individuals are significantly more likely to miss out on the many necessities and conveniences of modern life. Last year, one Philadelphia mother of two turned off her internet package when, after an injury, she lost her job at a day-care center. She and her family had to depend on public Wi-Fi, when they could find it, or tether expensive smartphone data to access the internet at home.

“I couldn’t afford it; they are always changing their packages,” she said in July 2015. “It’s never less, it’s always more.”

But Philadelphia is making progress. For example, as part of a renewed cable-TV franchise agreement, the city recently partnered with that provider to include several cooperative programs to provide low-cost internet access for thousands of low income citizens, as well as expanding free internet access to every city-operated recreation center. Thankfully, progress is being made in many other areas across the country.

The FCC’s latest Broadband Progress Report found that 10 percent of all Americans lack access to broadband that runs at 25 megabits per second, down from 17 percent the year before. But, if 39 percent of rural Americans and 41 percent of Americans living on tribal lands have no access to broadband, more work remains to be done. But deployment is only one part of the broadband equation. We need to reconsider concluding that broadband is available in a community if the infrastructure can be found right at one’s doorstep, but the service is not economically within their reach. Is broadband really available if the airwaves are capable of providing blazing-fast mobile services or there is a brand-new fiber optic line in your house, but you can’t afford to buy a phone or turn on your connection? Too many Americans cite cost as a reason they do not subscribe to broadband. Too many people fill out job applications on a smartphone, and then cannot read the news, because they went over their usage allowance.

Individuals cannot fully participate in an increasingly digital society if they do not have the means to do so. So the goal should be equal and affordable access. We must continue #ConnectingCommunities. We should come up with fresh ways to increase digital literacy, and increase the availability and affordability of devices and services necessary to realize digital inclusion. Community organizations can and must play a key role in advocating for change, and teaching those unfamiliar with technology how to use it. States and cities should continue to encourage broadband providers to engage on a local level.

America is the land of opportunity, but for anyone to realize the American dream, each of us must make sure that everyone has the necessary tools to achieve that dream.

Mignon L. Clyburn is a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission.

Jim Kenney is mayor of Philadelphia.

Bobby Henon is a member of Philadelphia City Council, representing the 6th District.

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