Broadband plan holds great promise for minority access

March 21, 2010|By Nicol Turner-Lee

With the goal of connecting the vast majority of Americans to next-generation broadband over the next decade, the National Broadband Plan that was unveiled by the Federal Communications Commission last week offers a road map to full digital inclusion in our country.

If we succeed in meeting its goals, the plan could become one of the most influential documents of our era - a blueprint not only for a new birth of equality and civil rights in the Information Age, but also for a more dynamic, competitive and vibrant society for the rest of this century.

For people of color, the poor, elderly, less-educated and disenfranchised, the stakes could not be higher.

Presently, nearly 100 million Americans, about a third of the country, are without a broadband connection to the Internet. According to the FCC, "they are older, poorer, less educated, more likely to be a racial or ethnic minority, and more likely to have a disability than those with a broadband Internet connection at home."

Cost remains the primary barrier to entry, and limited digital proficiency, especially among seniors and the less educated, is also an important reason why many adults choose not to get online.

Our stubbornly high unemployment rate provides a glimpse of a wider problem, which is that too many in our work force are unprepared for rapid innovation in high-tech sectors that will dominate the global economy in the decades ahead.

Young people are not being equipped to meet the global competitiveness challenge in science, technology, engineering and math. Poor children in the inner city and many rural areas lack the textbooks, tools and teachers to help improve their readiness for the digital economy.

By charting a course toward universal connectivity to high-speed networks, the National Broadband Plan can help jump-start new efforts to address long-standing inequalities with regard to education and economic opportunity and thereby help bridge gaps that go far beyond the oft-mentioned digital divide.

It's already happening among better-educated and more-affluent people of color. A recent study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that African-Americans and Hispanics in those categories are adopting broadband at the fastest rate of any group in the country.

The study also indicates that there is an enormous amount of good that the Internet can do right now in less-affluent communities of color. For example, when they do get online, lower-income African-Americans and Latinos were three times more likely than low-income whites to regularly use the Internet to search for jobs.

It remains to be seen whether broadband can be the game changer for minorities that many hope it will be, but it certainly has great promise, and its positive influences are already being felt in communities of color. To the extent that the National Broadband Plan will help push us toward extending broadband access to everyone and encouraging the widest possible adoption of new digital technologies, its impact in expanding equality and opportunity into long-neglected areas could be enormous.

Accordingly, America's most vulnerable are counting on our policymakers and legislators to do everything possible to implement this plan and ensure that it delivers on its promise of opening a digital pathway to a brighter economic future, and to seed innovation that will lead to education and jobs for their children.

The National Broadband Plan is a great start. But let us also ensure that its promise of faster, cheaper and more widely available broadband does not become the destination but rather a new platform from which to reinvigorate America's long-standing quest for a more perfect union.

Nicol Turner-Lee is vice president and director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Media and Technology Institute in Washington. Her e-mail is nlee@jointcenter.org.

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