It was another successful and eventful SXSW Conference in Austin this year, where LGBT Tech Executive Director and Co-Founder Chris Wood was proud to lead a panel addressing the digital divide titled Worlds Apart: Bridging Rural and Urban Divides. With distinguished guests Shirley Bloomfield (NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association), Brendan Carr (Federal Communications Commission), and Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee (The Brookings Institution), the panel discussed issues relevant to underserved and rural communities’ access to technology.
What is the Digital Divide?
A primary concern for the LGBT Technology Partnership and Institute is access to and equity in technology within the LGBT community. When we discuss the “digital divide,” we want to highlight the dichotomy America faces in terms of technological access and usership as we move toward an increasingly connected society.
Without access to technology - which includes devices, connectivity, and training - people face massive obstacles. From healthcare to education, from economic opportunities to finding a safe community online, the more society pushes towards digital connection, the greater the divide becomes between those who have and those to lack access to technology.
During the panel led by LGBT Tech at SXSW this year, experts discussed the challenges and opportunities specifically facing rural America, which suffers from a distinct digital divide. If you live in rural America, there’s a better than 1-in-4 chance that you lack access to fixed high-speed broadband at home, compared to a 1-in-50 probability in urban areas.
According to data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 34 million Americans still lack sufficient access to advanced broadband services. Those who lack access tend to be historically disadvantaged groups, including people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and rural residents.
One‐in‐five African Americans, and 19 percent of Hispanics do not use the internet, compared to 15 percent of Whites and only three percent of English‐speaking Asian Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. Getting more vulnerable communities online is perhaps the most challenging dilemma in the 21st century. Lacking connectivity, communities face second-class citizenship in America.
Bridging Rural and Urban Divides
“It is very important that we look at this as a national priority,” said Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee during the panel discussion. With the online economy affecting how citizens live, learn, and earn, it is imperative that high‐speed broadband access be a priority policy area for the U.S.
Shirley Bloomfield added, “One of the recent [FCC] reports shows that 92% of our population has access to fixed broadband or an LTE service. Take that number to rural America: 68% has access to that same technology...That is actually a lot of growth and is a big improvement, but it doesn’t help you at all if you’re sitting in one of these rural communities and wondering why you still don’t have access to broadband.”
“The digital economy has changed,” Dr. Turner-Lee explained. “The digital sharing economy has become much more intuitive, governments are moving towards much more efficiency and services...If you don’t have access, if you don’t have a computer, if you don’t have the collateral or the intuitive nature to participate in this new economy, you are left behind.”
In explaining the challenges people face in being excluded from this new digital economy, Dr. Lee laid it out bluntly: For those who lack access, she said, “That’s no longer the digital divide, that’s called being digitally invisible.”
How to Close the Digital Divide
So how do we solve this problem for Americans? LGBT Tech promotes the transition to 5G networks, as well as the continuation of broadband development throughout rural America.
“Something I’ve been working on a lot is infrastructure deployment policies,” explained Brendan Carr of the FCC. “We have a tremendous amount of regulatory red tape at the Commission that is diverting real dollars, real capital that could be put in the ground to put up a new cell site or deploy new fiber, and it’s going to a federal regulatory review process.” As expected, the FCC approved an order to streamline that national approval process for deploying small cells which are necessary for next generation 5G networks. The vote was 3-2 with approval by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel dissenting.
“At the FCC, we have something called the Federal Historic and Environmental Review Procedures,” Carr continued. “These were designed for the 3G and 4G era, when we talked about these tall, 100-foot or 200-foot macro-site wireless towers. Right now, we’re in the middle of a shift to small cells and a broader shift to 5G, which will depend on a lot of small cells. Those regulatory structures, which were designed for those huge towers, are not the right fit for small cells. This is one thing that’s going to hold us back, potentially, from this transition to 5G and from getting 4G service to communities that don’t have it right now.”
Here at LGBT Tech, we support the FCC and Brendan Carr’s proposal to exclude 5G small cells from these burdensome regulatory procedures. We also encourage the FCC to continue to push toward streamlining regulatory procedures to increase broadband deployment as quickly as possible.
But the conversation should no longer focus just on how to close the “digital divide.” Instead, stakeholders need to promote “digital competitiveness” among disadvantaged groups to ultimately break the trajectories of poverty and long-standing social isolation.
Embarking on a pathway toward national digital competitiveness requires a multi‐stakeholder effort that includes government, industry, community‐based organizations, and individuals working together on comprehensive policies and programs to cultivate new pathways for individual- and collective-capacity building.
The FCC could be the catalyst for a “Digital Competitiveness Working Group,” which would be charged with integrating technological solutions into much broader plans to improve local service provision and delivery. “Where you live shouldn’t be the determining factor to your success,” Brendan Carr said during the SXSW panel. In working toward digital competitiveness, we can ensure that the millions of Americans currently lacking access to technology can escape that second‐class citizenship and instead enjoy opportunity.
LGBT Tech continues to work toward digital competitiveness. Our PowerOn program aims to get technology into the hands of at-risk and homeless LGBT youth around the country. Find out how you can help.