Access for the People?  Free Streaming and Smart Feature Phones

New Orleans       There was a brief blurb that went across my screen the other day.  ACORN Canada was taking another national action demanding “Internet for All” in the long running campaign we have waged to increase access to the internet for lower income families.  We’ve made progress there. Way more than we have in the USA and many other countries.  A low cost $10 to $15 a month program for high speed has now been extended on a voluntary basis to most of the major internet providers in Canada, thanks to the intercession of the Canadian Radio & Television authority which handles internet access much like the FCC does in the US.  Given the resistance of companies like Canadian Bell, it was a win and showed some progress.  In most countries including the USA, we have less to show, even as there is universal consensus that the digital divide is creating huge barriers that are exacerbating inequality.

There is some good news from an unlikely quarter:  not a smart phone, but a smart feature phone.  75 million were shipped in 2017 to India, Africa, and Indonesia with 84 million expected to roll this year.  In India, where 60 million have now been sold, the phone is called JioPhone and put out by the giant local company Reliance.  The phone can be purchased for $20 and many can keep their monthly payments to as little as $2.50 making them affordable for very low-income families and workers.  As any would expect, they are slower and less powerful, but recognizing the cost and access to electricity, part of that is because they have a much longer battery life on a single charge.  The phones are manufactured largely by Hong Kong-based KaiOS Technologies.  Google of course has invested in KaiOS, according to the Wall Street Journal.  An Indonesian model is reportedly going to go on sale for $7.  A model is being designed for Brazil.  We need one for the USA and the rest of the 3.4 billion people worldwide without internet access.

Beat ‘em at their game, I like it.  Another instance of this kind of shrewdness has to do with streaming, and it’s crazy clever.  I caught notice of this new streaming service when four monopolistic US broadcast networks combined to sue something called Locast.  As described in the Times, Locast “is available through a free app that relays broadcast feeds online.  It has more than 200,000 users in 13 cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington.”  The founder, David Goodfriend, formerly with the Obama administration and now a law professor, found a loophole in the law allowing this service.  “Under federal law, broadcast stations must provide their signals free to the public, making networks …easily available through the use of an antenna.”  Remember always, friends, that the airwaves are public property licensed to broadcasters, not private property!  “Locast argues that its service complies with copyright law because as a nonprofit entity, it is allowed to act as a so-called signal booster for the broadcasters’ programming.”  Wow, isn’t that the bomb!  I wonder if AM/FM and our radio stations couldn’t figure out how to do this as well, but that’s another question for another day.

My point is that in this bleak area there is hope that the disrupters and the monopolies might still be hoisted by their own petard once there is a realization that people come first, and their demands for service and streaming are huge and must be met at an affordable level.

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