Quick Take: FCC advisory committee on diversity and digital empowerment lays out tasks ahead

Working groups on digital connectivity press on as the pandemic exposes and exacerbates the digital divide; goals set and preliminary solutions discussed


“Despite the unusual circumstances,” said FCC Media Bureau Chief Michelle Carey, as she praised the Advisory Committee on Diversity in Digital Empowerment, “you all have truly not skipped a beat.” One of nine such committees, its three working groups reported to Carey and the Commission on their respective work streams with 16 months left of the Committee's charter.

COVID-19 has altered how almost every agency of government works, but as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told this new key group, “disruption doesn't mean delay.” It is with the work of the Advisory Committee just named in February but whose work takes on new significance as civil society adjusts to what is being predicted a ‘new normal’ post-pandemic.

Pai laid out a goal of universal broadband deployment in all communities urban and rural. If a second coronavirus outbreak occurs this fall, Clyburn said “the only way you can have online learning is with broadband,” linking local level testing, contact tracing and telehealth demands for broadband.

Library patrons access public computers at the Fort Worth Library. Image: Informationwave at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Library patrons access public computers at the Fort Worth Library. Image: Informationwave at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons

“The greatest thing for the 21st century to me would be having broadband in every house,” said House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC). He created the House Task Force on Rural Broadband in June 2019.

The following are key takeaways from the working group's first virtual meeting:

#1 So much depends on connectivity

According to Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who visited COVID-afflicted Albany, Georgia, there’s an “acute need” in communities like Albany where families and small businesses hadn’t alternatives. “For the first time ever in responding to an emergency pandemic, Americans are relying extensively on the internet for an indeterminate amount of time.”

Starks has called for an ‘connectivity stimulus’ as Congress contemplates further economic and health care legislation already referred to as CARES 2, a follow-on to the CARES Act passed in April. Starks sees the chance to facilitate growing dependency pre-pandemic on broadband with the need for more post-pandemic and the inflection point it presents for the workforce.

“What this pandemic has made clear is the importance of communications,” Anna Gomez with the Hispanic National Bar Association and Chair of the Advisory Committee said. “It also has laid bare the terrible effects that disparities of access I’ve had in our communities.”

#2 Telecomm is responding to the need

Industry has responded, as 700 companies from Verizon to small fiber builders, signed onto Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge in its first six weeks online, which includes making Wi-Fi hotspots available “to any American who needs them.” On the education front alone, T-Mobile's laptop program, Verizon’s partnership with the LA School District, a Comcast’s internet essentials program each were praised during the session.

Almost half of the Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) in its industry association are offering free Wi-Fi or other connectivity to schools, according to working group member Jenell Trigg.

#3 Broadband deployment is a means, not an end

Comcast Vice President and Global Public Policy Counsel Rudy Brioché reported that while buildout and deployment, first undertaken at scale with federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ten years ago, are “a key driver,” his working group “haven't spent much time on” adoption and use.

Just as governors can allow restaurants to reopen but customers are reticent to appear, people may not be digitally literate – from having and using computers to knowing how to navigate the internet – or otherwise unable to get online. “Many people are home,” Brioché said, noting that Zoom and video conferencing services and the like are matters of adoption and use where economically disadvantaged communities fall short.

Participants agreed that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the digital divide, “whether it's the homework gap, it's a health care gap, it's an education gap,” Brioché said, “just across the board.” Harin Contractor with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported that less than a third of black rural households even have computers.

#4 Facilities are ‘anchor institutions’ for the public to connect

Contractor highlighted that 30 to 35% of Americans can work from home, but “the rest of America is disconnected.” Several anchor institutions were raised as areas needing attention:

Libraries have long been considered key access points for the public generally and communities where households lack broadband specifically.

The American Library Association is in talks with his working group and will participate in coming sessions. “There's many challenges that libraries are facing, but there's also opportunities to learn about and gain very great insights into how libraries are working creatively to serve communities and bridge the digital divide,” Harin’s colleague Laura Berrocal of Charter Communications said.

Contractor said that while the public health challenge of coronavirus has called attention to “underlying structural gaps that have existed and increasing the inequality of opportunity,” tribal communities deserve just as much attention.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) launched its Minority Broadband Initiative in November, another area of interest for FCC working groups. Schools are considered anchor institutions, but so are colleges and universities – Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) among them.

#5 Solutions discussed related to the work ahead

Not just buildings, but vehicles and loaner Wi-Fi hotspots are part of the solution seen by working group members.

Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation Resident Fellow Nicol Turner-Lee, who chairs the Diversity in the Tech Sector Working Group of the Committee, added that churches and open businesses presented places for the underpriveleged to connect – and subsequent, longer term opportunities. "We forgot about that type of funding," she said.

“The digital parking lot may very well be powered by a WISP operating in rural areas,” Trigg told members. “So we're not just focusing on libraries.”

Keep up to date with the Committee’s work here.

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