Henry Rivera Speaks on Expanding Internet Access: Broadband’s Role in Creating Jobs and Closing the Digital Divide

by Henry Rivera on August 11, 2011

Last week, Henry Rivera spoke at the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement’s 2011 Educational Conference. His remarks follow.

The role of broadband in creating jobs and closing the digital divide is an issue that is critical to all of us. In the few minutes I have with you, I would like to give you an overview of what’s at stake in this debate, why we need to care, and why now is the time to act.

We, the Latino community, have many pressing challenges as we look for ways to grow the economy, grow jobs, make health care more affordable and accessible, and increase the quality of our educational system. While jobs are a priority for everyone, they are particularly critical for our community because unemployment among Latinos is above 11 percent, significantly higher than the national average. We are a community in crisis. And as we work on solutions, we need to keep in mind that broadband can help with each of these areas.

Unfortunately, a gap exists between those who have access to information technology and the resources and skills necessary to effectively participate as digital citizens and those who do not. This is known in Washington as the “digital divide.” In a series of landmark studies beginning in 1995, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) first identified the Digital Divide and found that minority and low-income households were adopting computers and dial-up Internet access at much slower rates than other demographic groups. Unfortunately, this dynamic has not changed.

In 2010, NTIA reported that 52 percent of Hispanics and 52 percent of African Americans had yet to adopt broadband at home, compared with 32 percent of whites. In addition, NTIA found that 94 percent of households earning over $100,000 per year reported adopting broadband, compared to just 36 percent of households earning less than $25,000 per year. And reports from the FCC, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and NTIA all confirm that Hispanic, African American, and low-income households have the lowest adoption rates. While adoption has risen across every demographic group for the last several years, minority and low-income households still lag far behind.

Knowing that, it might be hard to be optimistic. But the good news is that there are several factors that have elevated the digital divide on the national agenda. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was instrumental in not only creating programs such as NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program and the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Broadband Infrastructure Program, but also in raising awareness of the need to bring broadband to unserved and underserved communities.

In addition, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan has made it clear that we can no longer ignore unserved and underserved communities and it has fundamentally changed the Commission’s agenda to focus on all things broadband. Moreover, President Obama recently called for deployment of next-generation, high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans within the next five years. From my perspectice, all this is a positive development and presents a unique opportunity to work together to find solutions to the digital divide.

Why is broadband access so important? Why is it a problem that many Latinos are on the wrong side of the digital divide? Here are just some of the reasons:

Broadband Promotes Economic Growth and Jobs

High speed connections accelerate business development by providing new opportunities for innovation, expansion, and e-commerce. A 2010 Communications Workers of America study shows that every additional $5 billion invested in broadband infrastructure creates 250,000 jobs – 100,000 direct and indirect jobs from telecom and IT equipment spending, plus another 150,000 in “network effects” spurring new online applications and services; and, with every percentage point increase in broadband penetration, employment expands by nearly 300,000 jobs.

Broadband networks attract investment to areas that would not otherwise attract it, such as rural and inner-city areas, this promoting the economic development of those areas. This is critical, especially in today’s economy.

Broadband Promotes Education

With broadband, students and teachers can expand instruction beyond the confines of the physical classroom and the traditional school day. Broadband allows more customized learning opportunities for students to access high-quality, low-cost, and personally relevant educational material. Children in inner city neighborhoods, affluent homes, and rural communities can all access the same resources, so it levels the playing field. Textbook materials can be complemented with online resources, and children can access all of these materials from school or home, anytime.

Broadband can improve the flow of educational information, allowing teachers, parents, and organizations to make better decisions tied to each student’s needs and abilities.

Broadband Improves Access to Healthcare

Specifically, broadband removes geography and time as barriers to care by enabling video consultation and remote patient monitoring. A family practitioner in a small town can send medical images of a patient to a specialist in any part of the world for and expert consultation. Test results from a hospital emergency room or laboratory can be sent to a radiologist or doctor in seconds, making rapid diagnosis a reality.

Broadband Provides Access to Government Services

Whether it is completing government forms, signing up for Medicare of Social Security benefits, renewing your car registration, paying taxes, reviewing Medicare prescription drug options, communicating with elected officials, streaming public government meetings and hearings, or viewing real-time public transit updates, broadband allows us to participate in civic life more fully and interact with government agencies with greater ease.

I could go on and on about the benefits of broadband – trust me – this list is not exhaustive. But at the core, I think you can seethe link between broadband and opportunity; between broadband and an overall potential for improvement in so many areas of life and living. Latino families that do not adopt broadband technology will inevitably be left behind. It is as simple as that.

And let me go a step further. If the digital divide is not closed, society as a whole, not just those on the wrong side of the digital divide, will pay a huge price. As more opportunities related to jobs, education, and health care move online, those without access to broadband will fall further behind, and government may well find itself picking up the tab for those who cannot keep up due to the lack of skills or the wherewithal to participate in the digital economy. Examples of societal costs are: forgone tax revenue from the unemployed; lost productivity because of limited innovation and creativity from a diverse population; and the funding of government benefit programs to support the unemployed and unemployable.

So, what are the barriers that remain to closing the digital divide for Hispanics? Survey after survey shows that there are three major barriers: the cost of broadband service and devices; the lack of digital skills; and the lack of relevance of the content available on the Internet.

Access is also a problem for about 4 percent of the US population, particularly those who live in rural or insular America. This problem is becoming more and more relevant to our community because while, historically, the Hispanic population in the United States has been heavily concentrated in urban areas (and to a large extent, it still is), the number of Hispanics in rural areas has increased significantly in the last decade as Hispanics expand their horizons in the quest for employment, affordable housing, and business opportunities. So we need to have in place the right policies designed to encourage deployment of broadband service to rural areas.

As I noted earlier, insular areas, too, have problems accessing broadband. For example, a recent FCC study says that no one in Puerto Rico has access to broadband. This is a huge disparity and one that is simply not acceptable.

Second, we must find a way to make broadband affordable. It’s not enough to make broadband merely available to a neighborhood. We also must make sure that broadband connections are affordable for the people who live there. Likewise, we have to make computers affordable. It does no good to assure people have broadband infrastructure available if people can’t afford the equipment to tap into it.

Third, it is also critical that we implement effective digital literacy training programs that are tailored to diverse communities. Without comprehensive digital literacy programs, Hispanics will not fully realize the benefits of broadband and will not seek computer connectivity, even when it is accessible and affordable. In other words, access to broadband and access to computers are of no use if people don’t know how to use them.

To overcome these barriers, we need to bring together public and private leaders in support of policies that harness the power of high-speed broadband. The FCC is working on reforming the Universal Service Fund to focus on broadband rather than traditional phone service, which is critical to closing the digital divide. We also need to encourage private sector solutions that benefit underprivileged communities and regions. For example, the AT&T/T-Mobile merger promises to bring 4G LTE high-speed broadband to 55 million more Americans and reach more than a million additional square miles than AT&T does now.

Right here in Puerto Rico, AT&T has committed to increase LTE coverage by 200,000 people and 500 square miles, which means that 97 percent of the population of Puerto Rico will be covered by the LTE footprint. This will be an enormous and transformative change for the better in Puerto Rico. This merger has the potential to positively and significantly impact broadband availability and make a substantial dent in the digital divide.

Studies show that Hispanics and African Americans outpace whites in wireless adoption. So wireless is extremely important to our community. We need to seize this opportunity, and, rather than relying solely on the build-out of wireline Internet infrastructure, we need to expand wireless broadband availability to unserved and underserved communities, which will most effectively connect the millions of Americans currently lacking access, including many Latinos.

As FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said, closing the digital divide separating those with and without broadband Internet service is “one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.” I would quibble with the chairman and say it is the single most important civil rights issue of our time. This is because it holds the keys to our community’s economic and social prosperity. I commend LCLAA for including this topic in this conference and for urging the FCC to consider the importance of broadband technology on Latino working families and the American economy.

In order to assure the benefits that come from broadband, we must come together to help the Latino community realize the vision of full Hispanic digital inclusion.

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    • John_Q_Public

      This succinctly captures all of the major themes and issues facing minority communities across the country. Thank you for pulling this all together so neatly and for issuing a call to action. A spark is needed to bring our communities together.

    • S.W.

      Great speech by Mr. Rivera! He touched on all the major issues (e.g., unemployment) and broadband-based solutions that are out there for the taking. Hopefully state and local policymakers will heed his advice / wisdom and kickstart their broadband adoption initiatives so that we can close this digital divide once and for all.

    • JCraigDC

      Great points made on the cost to society as a whole for carrying the load for those on the other side of the digital divide.  An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.  Policies must be put in to place now to prevent the digital divide from widening.

    • JCraigDC

      Great points made on the cost to society as a whole for carrying the load for those on the other side of the digital divide.  An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.  Policies must be put in to place now to prevent the digital divide from widening.

    • WalkRunFly

      I believe the best way for Latinos and blacks to close the divide is through wireless. That should be the top priority — expanding wireless access, keeping it affordable, expanding its capabilities.

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