The Digital Divide is Holding Blacks Back, and Brittny Saunders Knows Why
“Creating jobs and thriving local and regional economies requires access to broadband technology.”
As you read this article, it’s easy to take your Internet connection for granted. But for millions of blacks in America, jumping online is no easy task. Just 56% of African Americans have broadband access (versus 67% of whites), and in some areas of the country, the percentage plummets precipitously. We sat down with Brittny Saunders, Senior Advocate for The Center for Social Inclusion, to discuss why blacks are waylaid by the digital divide, and how we can bridge the gap.
Loop 21: How is the digital divide defined in the 21st century?
Brittny Saunders: In the 21st century, the digital divide is not simply a question of access to computer hardware or software or even the ability to gain access to the Internet. It is about whether all Americans have truly high-speed Internet access that is affordable and reliable. America’s economic future depends on our investment in opportunities for everyone and building the systems that support innovation. High-speed Internet, or broadband, has become indispensable for almost every facet of society, getting health care to hard-to-reach places, helping our kids learn, building our small businesses and helping them compete, and ensuring that we all get the information we need to participate in our democracy. Our economic future depends on everyone having access to this vital resource. Low-income communities and communities of color must not be left behind.
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Loop 21: Why are African Americans disproportionately on the disadvantaged side of the divide?
Brittny Saunders: People of color, thanks to a history of housing discrimination and poverty, tend to live in older buildings and communities or, in many cases, in isolated rural communities. Large telecommunications operators avoid investing in these communities because of the cost of upgrading the infrastructure and the impact on their profit margins. Their choices leave communities of color in the digital dark, less able to create and attract jobs, to help their children take advantage of 21st century learning tools, and less able to connect to the rest of the world. A 2010 report by the Center for Social Inclusion, for example, found that in Mississippi, people of color are the majority of residents in zip codes with zero access to high-speed Internet. The state’s 2nd Congressional District has the largest population of people of color and the lowest levels of broadband access.
Loop 21: What are the negative effects of this lack of access?
Brittny Saunders: Communities of color are acutely aware of their disadvantage and the need for solutions that work for everyone. According to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to report that lack of broadband was a major disadvantage with respect to accessing employment opportunities, getting information on health, connecting to government services, staying abreast of news, keeping up with developments in the local community and acquiring new knowledge. Without ubiquitous access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet, we miss critical opportunities to strengthen and innovate in communities of color -- opportunities that would make our nation as a whole more competitive on the global stage.
Loop 21: What are some of the obstacles that stand in the way of high technology penetration in many African-American communities?
Brittny Saunders: Due to historical discrimination and poverty, people of color tend to live in older buildings and communities or, in many cases, in isolated rural communities. Large telecommunications companies are often reluctant to invest in infrastructure updates or development in such settings because they expect little return on their investment. Affordability is another obstacle. Nationally, in 2010, real median household income (MHI) was $49,445. For African-Americans, MHI was $32,068, a mere 59% of the corresponding figure for non-Hispanic whites ($54,620). Because we’ve largely left it up to large telecommunications firms to make critically important choices about where and to whom service is deployed, communities of color and low-income communities have increasingly found themselves without access to this critical technology or have been unable to afford to bring it into their homes.
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Loop 21: What needs to be done to bring everyone into the 21st century?
Brittny Saunders: In order to bring all communities -- including communities of color -- into the 21st century, we must develop and support new models for how broadband infrastructure gets deployed. We need to support community-owned and community-driven projects that not only provide affordable access to high-speed Internet, but also support local educational, health, and job creation goals. Already, communities across the country are investing in new approaches, such as fiber-to-the-home networks that provide Internet access via cutting edge technology.
Loop 21: What should we be lobbying the government to do about this issue?
Brittny Saunders: There are two key steps that policymakers at both the state and federal levels must take:
· Fund Innovative Broadband Deployment Models. Leaving these decisions up to large telecommunications companies simply doesn’t work. It’s a model that hurts all of us by limiting the number of options we have for high-speed Internet access and it leaves too many low-income communities and communities of color behind. Instead, we urge Congress and the Administration to make funds available specifically to support community-owned and community-driven broadband networks. These investments will seed innovation in the communities that are poised to benefit most from affordable, reliable access to high-speed Internet. These new models will not only bring access to places that currently do not have or cannot afford it, they will also inspire new approaches that can increase and improve options for all Americans.
· Track Broadband Deployment and Adoption. Americans must be able to see and know where and how public dollars are being used and what benefits are being produced for whom. For example, Mississippi telecommunications enterprises received $30M in tax exemptions and credits from the state in 2010. Companies that receive funding for projects or tax benefits -- whether at the federal or state level -- should be required to share information about what projects were funded, where they were located (to the census block level), the technology used and whether service was provided for business or residential use. And state and federal policymakers must develop goals and measures that allow them to assess whether investments are actually closing access gaps.
Policymakers must also track home adoption. Access to the Internet via a local library or even a personal mobile wireless connection is not enough. One cannot fill out a job application, search for health care, or take part in new web-based open government initiatives in the limited time often allotted to users in public settings or on a handheld device. To truly reap the benefits of high speed Internet, Americans need to be able to bring broadband into their homes. With this in mind, we urge federal and state officials to build upon the National Broadband Map by tracking availability, technology utilized, and the extent of home adoption, and they must disaggregate this information by race and income. This data should be collected and made available to the public annually in readily analyzable formats (such as xml and csv). This data should also inform future decisions about how and where to invest public dollars.
Loop 21: What are some strategies that people who don’t have convenient access can adopt to bridge the gap?
Brittny Saunders: While access is sometimes available at institutions like public libraries and computer centers, demand for these resources often outpaces supply. Universal home adoption must be the goal and we can only get there by making smart investments that increase equity and tracking their impact over time.
Loop 21: What is one thing readers can do today to help rectify this issue?
Brittny Saunders: Readers can demand that their representatives at the state and federal levels focus attention and resources on this issue. Some may argue that in these difficult economic times, broadband can’t be a priority. But the truth is that broadband is absolutely essential to moving this nation forward in the long-term and short term. In the 21st century, creating jobs and thriving local and regional economies requires this crucial technology.
Loop 21: Is there anything else our readers need to know about the digital divide?
Brittny Saunders: Visit www.centerforsocialinclusion.org to learn more.
Do you know someone who needs help climbing across the digital divide? Tell us how you plan to help them in the comments.