The Obstacles to Closing the Digital Divide are Ideological and Naive

Students from a nearby elementary school start to filter into the 81st Avenue Branch Library after school lets out in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, May 5, 2016. The Oakland Public Library has eliminated fines on all children's materials and will soon urge city officials to ban fines for all patrons.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

New Orleans   You may be hearing this on the radio, but the chances are also good that you are reading – and maybe even hearing — this on your computer because you have broadband internet access. Yet, as most of us realize, at least 10% of the American people or more than 35 million folks, do not have broadband access, and you need to add another almost 8 million lower-income people who only have access through mobile phones, which is something, but still leaves a Grand Canyon gap to be closed when it comes to bridging the divide, and it’s ridiculous to claim otherwise. In 45 states, 20% of the public assistance programs for low income families require fixed broadband access in order to successfully apply.

Faithful readers and listeners know that this is a huge issue for me and for ACORN everywhere, but I’m beating on this drum again because of an interview in the New York Times with perhaps the best of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) members, Mignon Clyburn. Clyburn knows how to get things done and has the connections to make things happen in broad terms in Washington, since she is also the daughter of the 3rd ranking Congressman James Clyburn from South Carolina where she was also a former member of the Public Service Commission there. Clyburn’s remarks there were both the best and worst of what we might hope for if we want to create “internet for all.”

At one level, Commissioner Clyburn is a staunch advocate of bringing full broadband to lower income families, and has been aggressive in trying to make it happen, but where she reaches her limits are ideological in that she can’t break out of a neoliberalist commitment to hopes and prayers that benevolent corporations will somehow miraculously solve the problem. Or, perhaps worse, she washes her hands of a government role, arguing that “the community will demand the service.”

Despite her advocacy in general she is still counting on jawboning companies involved in mergers by applying a little stick if they want their big carrot. Most recently in Charter’s merger with Times Warner cable the FCC required the company to create a reduced price service for lower income families and to extend its coverage to another two million homes. These $10 per month programs might be something we could believe in, except that one company after another starting with Comcast where their merger with Universal required such a program, and followed by other companies supposedly “volunteering” to implement such programs, have failed to deliver or meet their goals and the FCC does virtually nothing to enforce its orders or monitor the volunteer efforts, making them pretty much little more than worthless press releases and icing with no cake underneath.

On Google Fiber and its community expansions where they require a certain portion of a community to enroll – and pay – in order to get high speed service, Commission Clyburn leaves it to the community to demand it, even while understanding that the community isn’t demanding it, because they can’t afford it. She’s talking a walk through a side door here. Perhaps she’s hoping that the community will demand that the city or someone else subsidize it, because the FCC record with telecoms they regulate delivering on these demands is abysmal.

When asked why she has such “trust in carriers to do the right thing,” she naively replies that, “I don’t think there is any business that wants to be perceived as not being a good partner with society.” Wow! The list starts with Comcast but almost all of the telecoms would be poster models for not giving a flying hoot about being a “good partner with society” or even their paying customers, much less lower income families.

When asked why it took a call from her to get a high school in Mississippi better broadband service, which as the reporter points out, “shows people don’t have the power to get better broadband on their own,” her reply is stone cold depressing. She says, “Is it a perfect system? Heck no…but it will get done…and that is the beauty of having local, state, and federal regulators. Yes, it may take some years to get broadband rolled out to all cities, but it’s going to get done.”

For Commissioner Clyburn, perhaps the best the FCC has to offer, somehow it is still all good if relief and justice is in the great “by and by.” Meanwhile the damage to millions of lower income families is incalculable. How does she sleep with that under her pillow?

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