Call Notes, 9/10: Universal Broadband, Prospects for Equity and Economic Development in '09 (Part 1 of 2)

"Universal Broadband: Prospects for Equity and Economic Development in '09" (Pt. 1)
GFEM's Media Policy Working Group Briefing Call, 9/10/08

NOTE: "Next Steps for Funders" follows the Q&A section of these call notes.  We would like to thank Helen Brunner and the Media Democracy Fund for helping shape today's program and for supporting grantees in this area of advocacy

INTRO: Jeff Perlstein, GFEM's Media Policy Working Group

In the 21st century, broadband or high-speed Internet is critical infrastructure for the well-being of our diverse communities. A robust Internet connection enables participation in telemedicine programs, economic development opportunities, distance learning, civic engagement, cultural access and much more.  But the reality is that a digital divide persists both within the United States and abroad. 

We're concerned with policies and practices that can help bridge the divide to ensure that all people have broadband access and know how to make constructive use of this technology.  Today's call and topic are particularly timely – opportunities for forward-thinking policy will be increasing in the near term as the political makeup in D.C. and many of the states will be shifting.

Jim Kohlenberger, E.D. of VON Coalition, Senior Fellow at Benton Foundation:

A United Nations report recently concluded that a broadband connection today is as important as access to water. It is as important in our age as the steam engine was to the industrial revolution. The United States has fallen from 1st to 17th in the world in terms of Internet deployment.

There is a huge broadband gap in the U.S. affecting multiple populations – people in rural areas, the poor, African Americans  and Latinos - and these divides cut people off from jobs and other opportunities.  Internet access is about access to knowledge, news and information.  At least one major newspaper has decided to no longer have a print version – it's now available only online. 

Being connected is critical to being engaged in democracy.  The 2006 elections were called the YouTube elections: viral videos like the Swift Boat Veteran and the "macaca" moment changed the election.  In this current election, candidates' use of the Internet has completely transformed the way campaigns are conducted – just imagine four years from now. 

In rural areas, broadband can be a cornerstone of economic development.  Many rural high school grads report feeling faced with a choice of having to go away for a job or go nowhere.  Broadband extends job opportunities into rural areas and can connect small businesses online.  In the realm of arts and culture, broadband is providing the backbone for new forms of production and distribution.  It allows users to access a wealth of creative content, regardless of your physical location. 

Broadband penetration in the U.S. is currently only at 50-60%. It's clear that we can't rely solely on the free market to meet this critical infrastructure need for all Americans.  The Benton Foundation has focused on a particular government program to address the problem – the Universal Service Fund, the same program that was started by the U.S. government in the 1930's to make telephone service universally accessible.  As a result of that program, 97% of Americans now have phones. With only 50% of households today having Broadband access, we need to transition the USF from analog/phones to digital/Broadband. 

Unfortunately, the Universal Service Fund is broken and getting worse. Benton has been working in coalition to bring pressure to bear on the FCC, and we're making some good progress.  There is some general agreement in D.C. that $300M/year should go to Broadband deployment.  This would be the largest funding for disconnected people in a generation.  Now even FCC Chairman Martin agrees that some aspects of the USF should address broadband.

But what's needed is a comprehensive strategy.  We need a serious, focused initiative from government. The free market will not solve the problem.

Senator Obama has called for a comprehensive broadband strategy.  McCain's advisor is former FCC chairman Michael Powell and they like the free market approach.  Benton is working to figure out how to harness key technologies to deal with pressing societal issues – health care, jobs, environment, etc.  Obama's plan recognizes these as key issues as well.  While the Federal governmentt has shirked much of its leadership during the last eight years, a number of individual states have stepped up to try and provide opportunities for innovative solutions.

Julie Schwartz, Progressive States Network:

High speed Internet has the potential to change the way we live, work and play.  The discrepancy between broadband haves and have-nots means at least 20M people in the U.S. don't even have access to a provider. 

States are now taking the lead on policy.  We need to collect good data on usage and access in order to be able to craft sound policy.  Some states are doing that already, and the Congress just passed a positive bill focused on robust data collection.

Broadband deployment councils are key strategic developments in numerous states.  Coordinated efforts between various stakeholders is necessary for effective infrastructure development. A very effective model can be seen in Washington State; Minnesota and West Virginia have recently deployed such councils too. Still though, less than half of the states have such councils.

Robust funding of community technology centers has been another successful strategy to narrow the digital divide in many states.  Programs include support for independent media production and digital inclusion outreach efforts.  Washington State is again a strong, example with millions of dollars allocated  for digital inclusion programs. 

Q & A

Q: What about "white spaces"? With the digital TV transition, analog spectrum will be vacated.  Policy advocates and businesses want to use the old analog "real estate" to provide broadband service in rural areas. 

Jim: Analog TV spectrum does a good job of going through walls and across huge distances. These characteristics make it valuable as a space for broadband. This spectrum will soon be available throughout the country.  It could be a huge opportunity to expand the availability of affordable broadband.  Not surprisingly, big telco providers are opposed to opening up "white spaces", opposed to "freeing the airwaves."  They're using the same faulty arguments and scare tactics as before when they were against Low Power FM – "there'll be interference and planes will drop from the sky".  Tests have shown there is no interference.  A related issue is the relative value of licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum.

Q: What can funders be doing to prepare in terms of changes in policy?
Julie: Get involved in state level broadband adoption.  There are statewide groups working on broadband policy issues, with deployment councils in many states. Contact us at Progressive States and I can help you find those groups and get involved with them. 

Jim: Always look to where the debate is moving towards.  The broadband issue has largely been seen as about "the pipes," but the debate will change to how people harness and make use of this technology. There are a series of grand challenges to be addressed in our society and broadband can play a helpful role.

For example, global warming – we can decrease emissions and fuel costs through telecommuting, telemedicine, etc. Studies have shown we could be saving $2200 per person each year in health care costs if we move more fully to broadband enabled technologies.  What do we do with this?  How do we solve the grand challenges?  Congress is now starting to look at these issues.  Look to where the debate will go.

Q: Is there any work that speaks to broadband access as a human right?

Jim: As many of you know, Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights addressses the right of every person to communicate within and across borders using the technologies available to others. Practically speaking, there are many stories from across the globe demosntrating the importance of broadband access in documenting human rights violations, such as freedom of speech, but I don't know of much about broadband access as a human right in and of itself.  Look to the international community for more of this frame.

Next Steps for Funders: