After a tough first year for President Barack Obama, it looks as if the nation’s 44th president is finally hitting his stride. March Madness has taken a new form in the world of Washington politics with the announcement of the administration’s popular education initiative, the rollout of a new digital infrastructure in the National Broadband Plan, the now-historical passage of health care reform by the House of Representatives. And tucked neatly into the House’s changes to the Senate’s health care bill was the student aid initiative — clearly, the “Cinderella Story” applies even to politics.
[IMGCAP(1)]Ironically, the fact that the National Broadband Plan announcement preceded the historic vote on health care was masterful. Broadband is the cornerstone to providing more affordable access to health care for the unserved and underserved and is really the bridge to the future for our children. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) laid out in her floor speech on Sunday night, health care plus education equals opportunity. We believe that the infrastructure that undergirds the future of our health care and education is access to affordable broadband.
The cost of digital exclusion is high and getting higher, as opportunities in health care, employment, education and civic engagement increasingly move online. Broadband access is no longer a luxury; it is an essential tool for all Americans. As Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps succinctly stated at an open commission meeting on March 16, “Access denied is opportunity denied.”
In a market whose essence fosters innovation and movement, it is imperative we bring broadband access to unserved and underserved communities before the digital divide is too wide to bridge. The number of underserved Americans increases exponentially as minimum speed requirements decrease, demonstrating the urgency in moving forward immediately and comprehensively to serve Americans regardless of their socioeconomic status.
As former mayors of Atlanta and Miami, we understand firsthand the opportunities broadband access can provide to disadvantaged Americans, especially minorities. Both cities suffer from startling wealth disparities — home to some of the wealthiest and poorest communities in America. The economic disparity we see in our beloved cities is also seen in health care and education for working families all across the country. Broadband is the bridge that provides a unique opportunity for people of color to achieve economic equality.
In February, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report on national minority broadband adoption. The statistics were eye-opening. Premised on the notion that research focused primarily on broadband adoption — without considering the underlying factors that influence the behavior of potential users — fails to facilitate minority adoption, the study takes a comprehensive look at broadband usage across several demographic breakdowns within the same racial groups. Unsurprisingly, the study found that age, family income and educational attainment contribute to disparities in access and adoption among minority groups.
The National Broadband Plan’s provisions for universal deployment and adoption have the potential to revolutionize the way all Americans — especially minorities — conduct their daily lives. The nature of the plan, like the Internet itself, is dynamic, and with oversight and constructive dialogue it promises to evolve over time. While there is always room to debate policy and methodology, there should be no flexibility on providing Americans with opportunities for economic success, educational achievement and civic engagement. Additionally, we must preserve the regulatory environment encouraged by the FCC’s plan that will incentivize private investment necessary to achieve universal broadband. Anything of the contrary could in turn force everyday users to subsidize these costs by paying higher monthly bills, and that’s something we cannot afford in this current economic environment.
As Omnibus Broadband Initiative Executive Director Blair Levin stated, “Evaluation is no excuse for paralysis.” Inaction is a fail-proof recipe for entrenched economic and social exclusion. With all the potential the National Broadband Plan inherently possesses, it is imperative the FCC capitalize on this opportunity efficiently and effectively, thereby improving the quality of life for fellow Americans and growing America’s global competitiveness. With the National Broadband Plan we are one step closer to closing the gap in our competitiveness in health care, education and economic equality in this global economy.
Shirley Franklin, a former mayor of Atlanta, is a senior adviser to the Alliance for Digital Equality. Manny Diaz, a former mayor of Miami, is vice chairman on the alliance’s board of directors.