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How Congress Can Bridge America’s Digital Divide | Commentary

I have long believed the Internet is an empowerment tool, providing access to information that was once more readily available to a few. This is especially true for minority and rural communities. And through a combination of considerable private investment and prudent public policies, the percentage of Americans with access to high-speed broadband quadrupled in just the past four years alone.

However, lawmakers, especially members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology who are meeting this week, must be mindful that freeing up wireless spectrum is essential to reaching fuller broadband adoption and meeting growing consumer demand.

Few have done more on the issue of broadband adoption than acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who took on this issue in the first days of her tenure at the commission. Although history will undoubtedly remember her as the first woman and the first African-American woman to lead the agency, her work to bridge the digital divide in this country will be the true hallmark of her legacy.

Clyburn has long recognized that broadband adoption presents an important opportunity to enhance some of the most basic tenets of our society — economic opportunity for all and access to quality health care and education. It is for those reasons she has worked to close the gap between those who have access to broadband Internet service and those who do not. Her work has contributed to a story of success that more and more Americans are now able to share.

According to a recent Pew Center survey, 78 percent of Latinos and African-Americans use the Internet — an increase over 2009 levels. The same survey found that a growing share of Latinos and African-Americans are increasingly accessing the Internet on their cellphones and other mobile devices. Additionally, a new White House report found that the percentage of American homes served by high-speed broadband networks has risen dramatically to more than 80 percent — a fourfold increase since 2009. And in rural communities, high-speed mobile broadband network coverage is improving as national wireless companies are partnering with rural carriers by leasing them precious wireless spectrum to build their own networks.

As a result, we’re seeing broadband and mobile networks play a larger, more meaningful role in more Americans’ lives. Today, the wealth of knowledge that exists in this world can be accessed by a student with an iPad. And rather than relying on the dated classroom encyclopedia, students today can reach beyond their schools’ limited resources by tapping into the online tools, information sources and richer content that professionals and researchers use every day.

While there is still work to be done to close the narrowing digital divide more completely, we have made tremendous progress through the years. But, we may risk jeopardizing that progress if we do not hasten efforts to make more spectrum available to wireless providers.

Spectrum fuels the mobile devices and services Americans are relying on more and more in their everyday lives. Unfortunately, the majority of the best spectrum for that use is currently owned by various government agencies and used inefficiently.

To meet the untold demand future innovations may bring, these government agencies — most notably the Department of Defense — must unleash some of their spectrum. President Barack Obama’s recent directive to federal agencies to increase the efficiency of their spectrum use and other measures to make more spectrum available for commercial use was an important step toward reaching this objective.

The FCC has also undertaken a crucial endeavor to free up more spectrum by conducting groundbreaking incentive auctions. It is a complicated process, but the FCC is working tirelessly to get it right. The process would essentially require TV broadcasters to tell the FCC what they are willing to give up, wireless companies will bid on that spectrum, and revenues will pay the broadcasters, fund a long-awaited public safety network and help to bring down our nation’s debt. Wireless companies will use the spectrum they acquire to increase the speed and capacity of their mobile broadband networks.

These efforts could help position our country for a future in which more Americans, from all walks of life, are able to experience all that broadband has to offer. Therefore, lawmakers must insist today that those incentive auctions be designed in such a way that they are open to all bidders, without any arbitrary conditions. Only then will we be able to ensure the spectrum is acquired by those who will put it to its best use to the benefit of more Americans and close the digital divide for good.

Former Rep. Eva M. Clayton represented North Carolina’s 1st District from 1992 to 2003 and served as assistant secretariat general at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.

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