Bridging the Digital Divide: Actor Hill Harper Thinks ‘Free Data’ Holds the Answers

This article originally appeared on The Root. 



It’s taken for granted, in this day and age, that everyone has a smartphone. Everyone and their great-grandmother is FaceTiming, Snapchatting, and streaming music and video.

What shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, is that everyone has access to a data plan via their smartphone. This is especially true when talking about people from underrepresented communities. And it’s an issue that actor Hill Harper feels extremely passionate about, having witnessed it from the youth involved in his own nonprofit, Manifest Your Destiny.

“A number of the young people who are involved in my foundation come from families whose parents did not go to college, they’re from challenged neighborhoods and most of them have smartphones of some type, but the vast majority, their families can’t afford data plans,” Harper tells The Root. “They have the technology to be able to access [the internet], but they don’t have the actual access.”

The realization prompted Harper, best known for his role as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes in CSI: NY, to research more deeply about the Federal Communications Commission and what’s going on with communication policy. And that’s where he learned more about “zero-rating” or “free data,” and he latched on to the idea.

The zero-rating or free- or sponsored-data idea is pretty simple. Network operators or internet service providers don’t count access to certain online services toward your data cap. You can get on certain sites and applications for free. In doing so, Harper believes more underrepresented folks can get online and close the digital divide that exists between the “haves” and “have-nots.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that technology and community ability to participate in the 21st-century economy is going to revolve around access to technology and access to broadband and closing the digital divide,” Harper says.

“So those issues are really important to me because if we’re going to empower communities, we have to speak about empowering them through technology and access. If they’re blocked out of access there’s no way to participate in this information-based economy,” he says.

Harper is now an advocate with the organization Mobile Like Me, which focuses on improving connectivity via mobile technology to empower communities.

Harper and Mobile Like Me focus on mobile technology because people who are low-income and younger adults, particularly black and Latino youths, are more likely to be completely dependent on their smartphones than their higher-income or white counterparts. Having a smartphone often negates the immediate need for an expensive desktop, laptop or tablet.

Having access to broadband can be important for so many different aspects of our day-to-day life, including, of course, education. And the impact on certain communities that may be left out of touch could be devastating.

If education, for example, is becoming more and more tech-based, even in something as simple as accessing coursework, how can children remain involved if they are not connected?

“If you’re not in the game, you can’t win the game. We need to ensure that we’re discussing policies that create more access for all groups of folks to technology,” Harper says. “If we leave someone way behind and technology continues to evolve, it doesn’t stop, it doesn’t wait for people to catch up; we need to let people participate.”

Harper is aware that there are opponents to the zero-rating policy, those who claim that it is not good for consumers or it is anti-net neutrality—based on several factors, including that it may force users to gravitate toward the free websites and services more than other up-and-coming and small-business services that would cost you some gigabytes on a data plan.

However, Harper disagrees heavily with this notion, rejecting anti-zero-rating groups’ calls for the FCC to ban the option altogether.

“What we’re really talking about are free data options. It’s not one type of free data or one type of sponsored data. I think all the options should be on the table,” he explains. “And if you just say, ‘Oh no, things have to be this one way; consumers have to pay for what they use as they go or buy unlimited plan and that’s the only way you can get on’… No. It should be choice. There should be options. No one’s trying to take away from folks who pay for unlimited data. … I’m just trying to speak for the consumers who want choice and options beyond that.”

Right now, the FCC handles zero-rating issues on a case-by-case approach to potential conduct issues, which suits Harper just fine. As long as there is an outlet for underrepresented communities to access the internet, there may just be a way, to Harper’s mind, to bridge the digital divide and support the next generation of potential creators.

“If [young people] don’t have access to the internet … to actually get in there and play, whether it is Pokémon Go … whether it’s Facebook, it doesn’t matter, how are they going to develop the next big thing?” Harper queries.  “They’re not. They’re going to be left out and that’s the difference between technology and something else. It’s access. And we need to ensure access. It’s not about judging what they use the technology for—streaming music, streaming TV shows or social media—that’s not the issue. It’s really just about having access to getting on this technology superhighway.”

“Technology is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s a necessity to be able to get a job, to apply for a job these days. … From jobs to health care to education to communicating with loved ones, keeping up with friends, all of these things and just enjoying life and creating new businesses and marketing yourself and marketing business, all of this is done through broadband technology,” Harper adds. “We have to take it very seriously if folks are being left out, and so the more options that are available for all types of people, the better off we are.”

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