Bridging the divide

September 27, 2006|By E. Faye Williams

Despite spectacular gains in the last decade in making new technologies available to ever more Americans, the so-called digital divide - the racial and ethnic chasm that separates the digital haves from the have-nots - persists.

Whether it's access to computers, dial-up Internet or broadband services, minority communities still seem to be getting the short end of the high-tech stick.

The statistics speak for themselves. Only a small fraction of minority households subscribe to broadband Internet: 14 percent for African-Americans and 12.5 percent for Latinos, according to the National Poverty Center.

But a key provision of pending telecom legislation before Congress could help bridge the gap. A policy proposal known as "interconnection," if enacted, could help ensure that minority communities get the full panoply of digital services.

Interconnection, in short, creates a common link between our various telephone networks, enabling them to "talk" with one another. With interconnection, phone calls travel from one phone carrier to another without a hitch; without a guarantee of interconnection, calls get dropped right off the wire.

But interconnection is more than just completing calls: It's the principle that spurs phone competition, lowering rates and pushing broadband out to underserved communities. Without it, new broadband services such as Internet phone service, or VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), will be stopped dead in their tracks.

So where's the rub?

For the most part, the giant telephone companies - AT&T and Verizon, in particular - have bristled at the idea of creating seamless interconnection rights with new Internet-based telephone technologies such as VoIP. And, in seeking a legal end-run around the traditional requirement of interconnection as it applies to new VoIP services, the Bells have resorted to semantics in a maneuver that could snuff out the very lifeblood of new VoIP technologies.

Essentially, Bell executives argue that because VoIP-based telephone service operates over a broadband pipe, it is not a traditional "telecom" service but rather an "information" service under the law.

The practical effect of that classification is to disenfranchise VoIP networks' right to interconnect with the legacy telephone networks operated by the Bells. Testifying on legislation that would extend interconnection to VoIP services, a telephone company trade association official warned against extending "extensive interconnection rights" to such services as VoIP.

When one recognizes the potential of VoIP, one can understand why the traditional telephone companies may want to stifle it. Experts predict that if enabled, VoIP telephone service will sweep the nation in the coming years because it is both cheaper than and far superior to traditional telephone service. Your VoIP service can, for instance, read your e-mails and convey them to you in a voice message.

VoIP's efficiency translates into real savings. According to a study released last week by the economic research firm MiCRA, consumers could save as much as $100 billion over five years thanks to VoIP services provided by cable companies alone. Because the telephone companies are raising rates in many states for some telecom services by as much as 30 percent, these savings become more critical than ever.

Indeed, the gamesmanship of the telephone companies in trying to gum up the works for VoIP providers stands at odds with their stated desire to "update" the telecom laws to allow the Bells to offer cable television service. But in reality, the "future faster" ad campaign seems to be a cloak for pushing policies that will allow them to stunt competition in the telephone marketplace while seeking special favors for entry into the cable marketplace, where they will cherrypick wealthy communities.

The implications of the contradiction should not be lost on lawmakers concerned about the digital divide. Although AT&T and Verizon have made it clear that they seek legislation that would allow them to skirt nondiscrimination rules and provide upgraded broadband services mostly to wealthy suburban consumers, new providers of VoIP and other services could help bridge the digital divide by bringing their new services into underserved areas - unless of course, they are chopped off at the knees by the telephone companies. And that is key for minority small businesses, for underfunded schools, and for the upward mobility of thousands of middle- and lower- income communities.

Congress has a golden chance now to cut rather than raise telephone rates, to increase competition and to help other companies bridge a digital divide that could worsen in years coming. Congress should build this bridge.

E. Faye Williams is the national chairwoman of the National Congress of Black Women and a founding member of Broadband Everywhere. Her e-mail is fayewilliams@broadbandeverywhere.com.

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