The message couldn't have been more clear last month when FCC staff sat in a crowded Seattle conference room with about 80 local folks, gathered to share our opinions on preserving a fair and open Internet. Even in the tech capital of Seattle, urban communities need broadband access that is more fair, more affordable, and more reliable--and we need consumer protections from Internet providers who would keep many of us stuck in Internet slow lanes rather than treating us all fairly.
This summer, the FCC is making a sensible move to strengthen its ability to improve Internet access across the country, in response to a recent court decision which questioned the agency's authority to hold companies like Comcast accountable to our community needs. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to make sure that the agency remains able to pursue the goals laid out in the National Broadband Plan released earlier this year; those goals include preserving Internet openness (net neutrality), and catching up with other industrialized countries in broadband speed and affordability.
Among the most important goals in that report is establishing broadband as a universal service. It's no secret that huge digital divides still exist between Internet haves and have-nots, as broadband access has been especially slow to reach many rural and tribal areas. But many urban areas are also afflicted by access problems—including some of the nation's supposed high-tech Meccas.
Few readers of Forbes were surprised last year when the business magazine ranked Seattle the nation's most tech-savvy city. Seattle is the center of a famously tech-rich area, with major software, high-tech and Internet-focused companies based in the region, and a high degree of utilization of information technologies ranging from smart phones to computers and cable television. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis has ranked Seattle 17th in per capita income among 363 metropolitan areas, and the city also boasts among the highest rates of literacy and post-secondary graduates in the nation.
All this makes the persistence of digital divides in Seattle confounding and unsettling.
City government and community organizations have been engaged in studying the problem, and the city has created initiatives to close the gap and also researching the size and shape of the divide. The 2009 Seattle Technology Access and Adoption Report tracks the use of information technologies over time, and documents the digital divide.
“In an increasingly digital culture, the gap in [broadband] adoption threatens greater exclusion or marginalization, and sharper disparities in opportunities for education, civic participation, jobs and economic success.”
The city’s study was conducted using surveys and focus groups. Income and education were the most significant factors in determining digital exclusion, but age, ethnicity, language spoken and disability also were found to be significant in technology adoption. Focus groups conducted with immigrant communities also affirmed that those with language barriers are more disconnected.
One of the important uses of information technology in terms of civic affairs is the accessing of information about city services, policy-making and the opportunity to engage with elected or appointed officials. The city of Seattle, as an example, has an info-rich municipal website where users can not only pay their utility bills and report pot holes, but also send a message directly to the mayor, find out when a transportation planning meeting is taking place, and comment on policy issues that affect their daily living.
While the internet has many uses that are entertaining and could be considered frivolous, the ability to engage civically is one use where the exclusion of certain demographic groups can affect our democracy. If low-income residents are unable to access important services and information online, they are shut out of important opportunities to wield their civic power.
In addition, the success of students is increasingly determined by access to the information and resources that are available online, and which depend on the ability to connect at high speeds. Many low-income households in Seattle remain unable to afford home Internet access--that affects students' ability to complete homework, and parents' ability to communicate with teachers.
In the same way that policymakers implemented Universal Service for telephones in the last century, a similar initiative is needed today to insure that disparities of income and opportunity do not deepen the disenfranchisement of groups that are excluded from the digital revolution. We've got to make sure that the federal government, including the FCC, continues to follow this path.
In Seattle, our local Digital Justice Coalition, led by Reclaim the Media and other MAG-Net member organizations, is calling for both local and national solutions for expanding digital rights. We're pushing our city government to build a publicly-owned fiber broadband network, in order to provide affordable, fast broadband to every home/office in Seattle. This build-it-ourselves solution would go a long way towards erasing local digital divides, equalizing technology access across neighborhoods for the first time. In addition, a publicly-accountable open network would guarantee open access and net neutrality.
But for the long term, federal policies are needed to protect our digital rights--not just in tech centers like Seattle, but in all urban and rural communities. That's why MAG-Net member organizations across the country are continuing to push the FCC and our elected officials to enact policies that make high-quality broadband access truly universal, maintain a fair and open Internet, and encourage all people to become fully engaged participants in our digital democracy.