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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Magical Realism at the Border of Techies and the Poor

App for Louisiana food stamps

New Orleans    Don’t get me wrong, I am 1000% in favor of techies of all stripes and sizes trying to figure out a way to impact on the lives and fortunes of low and moderate income families. Nonetheless, when I read an article about JPMorgan Chase putting up $30 million through its foundation to create a Financial Solutions Lab to supposedly “build affordable financial services” within their financial industry, all my antennae immediately go up because for the life of me that sounds like a way for Chase to divert money into a tax exempt arm to do research and development for its core business, rather than anything to do with philanthropy. How jaded have I become?!?

The New York Times published a puff piece about the effort in a special section on something they called “fintech,” which I would recommend against ordering at a restaurant no matter how much you like seafood. They highlighted a company called Propel that seemed amazingly well intentioned and dedicated. They had thought of developing an application for a smartphone that would help lower income families apply for food stamps. They were sent with the other Chase lab rats to walk the “mean streets” of San Francisco to get a better sense of the needs of the poor. Did I really say San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the United States? Maybe they were looking to see how many lower income families had managed to stay in San Francisco…but I don’t want to get off my subject here. Anyway, Chase gave Propel a quarter of a million bucks, and they ended up switching over to develop an app to allow a low income family to be able to determine the balance they have left on their food stamp card.

I guess that’s a good thing, though in my experience most food stamp recipients can tell almost anyone within a penny how much they have on their card at any time day or night during any month you might want to ask. Or they walk to the corner store and find out, but, let’s stay positive here.

You will need a smartphone though for this app to help you. We have this nagging problem of the widening gap in internet access but according to various Pew Research surveys 74% of families making less than $30000 per year now have sometime access to the internet. 13% of families with internet access making less than $30000 can only do so with a smartphone, so for the subset of those who are also eligible for food stamps of that 13%, the app might have some value.

Of course smartphones cost money, and if a family making under $30000 can afford a smartphone, that doesn’t mean they can afford unlimited access to data of course. 48% in fact report on Pew surveys that they pretty regularly get cutoff from their smartphones because they don’t have the money to pay the bill. 30% also report that they regularly exhaust the minutes on their data plan so essentially have to cut themselves off from using their phones to access the internet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a solution looking for a problem. I’m just saying that this “fintech” pretense of supposedly helping low income families who are unbanked and victimized by their lack of affordable access to the financial system is way ahead of its time until there is equal access to the internet, the cost of devices are lowered, and the FCC forces the predatory telecoms to produce affordable plans for lower income families. In fact if Chase had been willing to really be charitable and invest $30 million in a campaign to make that happen PDQ in the US, then we would be talking about a real step forward where we could let a thousand apps bloom. Until then other than providing R&D for big banks, it seems the cart has once again jumped ahead of the horse.

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