#Solutions2020 Policy Forum Hosted by FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

On October 19, 2016 Commissioner Mignon Clyburn hosted a very informative conference about access to the internet, most importantly this forum was about finding solutions not excuses.

The day started with a lighting round about “Bridging the affordability Gap:” an incredible session about ensuring that internet access stays affordable to all communities, especially minorities, lower income, and those is rural areas.

Next we had the panel discussion “Ushering in the Next Chapter of Broadband and Health.” It was here that the panel highlighted the increasing importance of the internet in the Health care sector. Showing how crucial it is for the medical community to be able to access and share the most recent medical advances.

The third session was the lighting round: “Combating Inequality in the Communications Sector.” This session was a very solutions orientated session focusing on the need (and lack of) diversity in the communications sector. Providing ways more women and minorities (especially Native Americans) can have influence on the content and ownership of media outlets, particularly digital, radio, and televsion media outlets.

After a break, we continued with our fourth session a lighting round about “Digital Inclusion in the 21st Century.” The “inclusion” that this session focused on was how everyone needs to be included in the growth of our digital society. Solutions were delivered on how we can make sure access is provided to entrepreneurs, to women, to minorities on how they can create the latest technological advances in the digital space.

The fifth and final session discussed “Unlocking the 5G Revolution.” Here several solutions were given about the importance of 5G mobile access predominantly in rural areas. It emphasized that we need to have a strategy for the rural areas that was more than “just a watered down version” of the strategy for highly populated areas of the US.

Commissioner Clyburn more than surpassed her goal of creating a forum that provided “Solutions” for growth in the digital specter. Solutions to help close the “Digital Divide”; solutions for ensuring the future of the digital space will help everyone, not just the chosen few. Solutions for several causes that Mobile Like Me is looking to make a major impact around the country. As the Executive Director of Mobile Like Me I was fortunate to attend this event and most importantly I was able to present Commissioner Clyburn a small token to say “Thank you for helping on the issues that we find so important to helping grow our digital society.

Bridging the Digital Divide: Not Every Low Income Family is the Same

This article originally appeared on National Digital Inclusion Alliance by Michael Liimatta.

Today, the issue of digital equity is receiving more attention than ever. For good reason; Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a daily necessity. It is essential for academic success at all levels and how we find employment, career training and a host of other essential services. In our efforts to level the digital playing field for low income families, we must avoid the assumption that all of them relate to technology, computers and the Internet in the same way. To be effective in digital inclusion efforts, we must recognize that there are at least four different subsets within this population, each with its own unique set of needs.

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1) The Early adopters: Research has shown that low income families with school children tend to have a higher rate of broadband adoption, approximately half have access at home. The highest adoption rates are where discounted Internet plans have been offered for a number of years, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Cox’s Connect2Compete. While early adopters are already connected, we should not overlook them. Some are making make great sacrifices to pay market rate for their Internet subscriptions so their children can get online and struggle to keep up their payments. Some rely on expensive smartphone data plan. Others have connection speeds to slow to get much done. Many have outdated computers, little or no tech support and need training and access to online resources.

As the online world continues to evolve, digital inclusion practitioners will never be out of a job. Under resourced families will always need ongoing support to take advantage of all the Internet has to offer. This need was recently out in a recent Pew Research study. It revealed that 52% of adults lacked “digital readiness” to pursue online learning. This group is largely made up of older, low income adults. (See http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/20/digital-readiness-gaps/)

2) The Uninformed: There are still low income families that know they need to be online and can afford a discounted Internet plan but simply don’t know they are available. This is one area where we can have an immediate impact by bringing awareness to these families through resident signup and training events. ISPs like Comcast, Cox and Google Fiber have staff members in in cities where they offer discounted Internet service who are dedicated to this type of outreach. They are seeking local partners to help them stage these types of awareness events.

3) The Financially Challenged: Public housing families have incomes of less than $1,000 a month. For most, the only way they get connected is if someone else pays for it. This was the case for 80% of homes that were brought online in the first year of HUD’s ConnectHome initiative. While no federal funds were made available to support the initiative, cities, housing authorities, and corporate and philanthropy partners stepped up to provide funding and free connections. Various approaches were used; distributing Sprint hotspots, installing Wi-Fi systems in multifamily properties and sponsoring families using the Internet Essential Opportunity gift cards. It is important to note that owning a computer, laptop or tablet is actually be the most important cost barrier to being connected to the Internet. This is why effective digital inclusion outreach must include providing free or low cost devices as part of the strategy.

The Unconvinced: Lastly, there those who can afford a discounted Internet connection but are simply not convinced that they need it. In this group are those who feel all they need is access through a smartphone. In order to close the “Homework Gap,” adult heads of household must be convinced of the high value of robust in-home access. When it comes to broadband adoption efforts, this can be the most challenging group of all, representing a significant portion of households living on the wrong side of the Digital Divide. Some are basically unaware of all the benefits of connectivity. Others have never had a chance to see how much more can be done using a full sized screen and keyboard instead of just smartphone. There are also parents who are unfamiliar or even intimidated by technology and choose not to get involved with computers and the Internet.

The only way to influence those in this final group is a long-term dedicated educational and marketing effort. It requires multiple class sessions and, often, one-on-one tutoring to help them learn all that is possible online and to gain the confidence they need to become productive users of the Internet.

When President Obama announced the ConnectALL initiative, he declared the goal was to connect 20 million more Americans to the Internet. While we have the national spotlight, it’s a good time to help policymakers understand that, in order to do this, it is going to take a significant infusion of money from the government, corporate and philanthropic sectors. Too many efforts focus only on providing computers and connectivity but fail to factor in the social dynamic of broadband adoption. Successful digital inclusions efforts need both dedicated leadership and “boots on the ground” to be executed successfully. Bringing the last group of non-adopters will be very labor intensive. This where we will need funding to make a real difference.

Mobile Broadband Adoption Exploding Globally

More than 226 million people in Africa have smartphone connections, and more than half a billion are mobile cell phone subscribers, a figure that’s expected to grow to 725 million by 2020. At the same time, 92% of China’s mainland population is expected to have mobile broadband at 4G speeds by 2018. With figures like these, it would be an understatement to say that mobile broadband adoption around the world is on the rise. But the recent trends in cell phone and smartphone ownership are just the tip of the iceberg.

As mobile and smart devices become cheaper, and more people get to experience the array of life-enhancing applications the Internet enables, mobile growth will only continue to skyrocket. A recent report by the Pew Research Center finds that smartphone ownership is surging in emerging economies, but that advanced economies still have higher rates of technology use. Here in the U.S., people use cell phones and smartphones at a rate higher than almost anywhere in the world, surpassed only by Australia, with Canada and the U.K. as close seconds.

While the digital divide remains a real stumbling block for people on the wrong side of the technology access equation, mobile adoption is helping to reduce digital disparities. By providing portable, affordable Internet access, especially for members of rural or low-income communities, mobile accessibility enables access to beneficial, and at times, life saving platforms and technologies. Even where home broadband adoption has plateaued, mobile broadband use over a smartphone or cell phone is allowing people to get and stay connected to the technologies we’ve become some dependent on for daily interactions.

Considering the profound importance of Internet access these days, maintaining affordable options of mobile connectivity is key to reducing the digital divide. Increased mobility is also essential for ensuring that people around the world can access the opportunities made possible by the Internet.

Future of Lifeline Hangs in the Balances

The Federal Communications Commission made history with sweeping new changes to its Lifeline program. In adopting its new rule, the Commission sought to make broadband more accessible and affordable to low-income residents across the country. As with many issues before the FCC these days, politics has gotten in the way of progress. Among the contentions opposing the new program, opponents say that extending Lifeline benefits costs too much and does not properly address issues of “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Now, twelve states – Wisconsin, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, Connecticut, Mississippi, and Vermont – have filed petitions for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit challenging the Commission’s Lifeline Modernization Order. In its original order, the Commission noted, “at a time when our economy and lives are increasingly moving online and millions of Americans remain offline, the Lifeline program must keep pace with this technological evolution to fulfill its core mission.”

The new program is meant to offer to management and process efficiencies, and enable a pool of funding to support the purchase of high-speed broadband, and not just telephone service, which Lifeline applied exclusively applied to before. In structuring this new program, however, the FCC pre-empted the authority of state public service commissions – the regulatory bodies that previously administered the Lifeline program – to designate authorized service providers for broadband service. On these grounds, the states petitioning the D.C. Circuit are saying the FCC’s action was an overreach of authority, and they’re seeking restrictions on the FCC’s Order that would curtail state action on Lifeline.

The new Lifeline program, which the FCC has budgeted at an $2.25 billion annually, can make it possible for the millions of American families “whose household income in below 135% of the federal poverty lever, or $32,805 for a family of four” to obtain broadband. According to Watchdog.org, “the expansion is expected to add about 5.5 million people to the program that now serves 18 million.”

Around the time opposition mounted against the Lifeline program, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – a consortium of more than 200 civil rights and social justice organizations – issued a letter to members of Congress in which it addressed the Lifeline issue:

“Today, more than ever before, it is critical to ensure that people of color, low-income people, and other vulnerable populations have access to broadband…Protecting the Lifeline program should not be a partisan issue…Although sensationalized and opportunistic attacks on the program have gained traction because they exacerbate and exploit stereotypes about the individuals who use the program, previous and newly-adopted reforms are addressing fraud and abuse in a comprehensive manner.”