Winter 2004-2005

Broadband — Why It's Important and Why YOU Should Care
by Linda Fowells and Richard Chabrán

Why Broadband?

In many communities broadband is taken for granted. But for many in low-income, ethnic, disabled, and rural communities, broadband is not yet a common word let alone an available service. Broadband, or advanced telecommunication services, is the term used to describe a fast way to receive data, voice, and video over the Internet (at least 200 kilobits per second). This service is delivered using a variety of different technologies including: fiber optic cables, T1, DSL, cable, and more recently broadband over power lines and satellite. Broadband is delivered to customers as a service provided by telecommunication, cable, wireless, and more recently energy and satellite companies.

Access to broadband for everyone is essential for full participation and opportunity in the civic and economic life of our society. It's essential for enabling civic participation, for supporting comprehensive strategies to foster community health and development, and strengthening the connections among people.

Graphic 1
Services and uses that required broadband access

In the community technology field, we used to argue that people needed access to technology and the Internet so they could, for example, be sufficiently technologically literate to get a living wage job, participate on the discounts afforded by online commerce, and access information which is now only — or most easily — available online.

Sounds familiar, right? But times have changed, and now people need not just Internet access, but high speed access. Dial up access is too slow and increasingly incapable of accessing the information needed to take advantage of all the benefits the Internet has brought to bear. The problem is only getting worse as technology advances, and websites become more complex and require more bandwidth to load. Broadband is also required to use new and sophisticated applications like databases of community information, distance learning programs, and new technologies like video and voice over IP.

Thus, a well planned, well executed, and equitable broadband infrastructure is the foundation for our society in the new information economy. What's at stake here is more than just the ability of any individual to get a living wage job or check out the latest voting statistics. While those are vitally important, what's at stake is the ability of our communities — urban, suburban, and rural — to have access to the advantages that advanced technology brings for economic development, education, health, the arts, community development…nearly every facet of our contemporary lives.

Protecting and Expanding the Social Contract

As many exciting new technologies are deployed in our communities, the level of policy discussions has intensified. Some in the telecommunication industry have begun to assert that new services which are IP-based (connected to the Internet) should not be regulated. They do not want to participate in universal service programs at the federal and state level that have provided important subsidies to support education, libraries, health and community-based organizations. Another current policy debate is illustrated by the recent FCC decision which bars states from regulating VoIP (telephone over the Internet), limiting participation in state-sponsored universal service programs. If we are not successful in convincing legislators and regulators at the FCC that services like VoIP should pay into universal service funds then we risk losing the funding base for universal service programs.1

Graphic 2
U.S. 13th in Broadband Deployment

U.S. 13th in Broadband Deployment

(The Portable Internet. International Telecommunication Union)

Many reports have found that the United States lags behind other countries in broadband deployment (See Graphic 2). Reports have also noted uneven deployment between states and also cities and rural areas. The recently released Department of Commerce NTIA report, A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age, shows that more individuals have computers and are connecting to the Internet. The report also shows the growth of broadband and the decline in dialup users, especially for people with higher incomes. (See Graphic 3) In addition, people who have broadband use the Internet more frequently, and use it for more applications. However, the report further documents the concern that broadband is often not available in rural areas. Moreover, what is not highlighted in the body of this report, but rather included in the appendices, is the fact that African Americans, Latinos, and people with disabilities continue to lag behind in Internet and broadband use. (See Graphic 4) It is important to keep in mind that access disparities are much different when subgroups are the basis for analysis instead of these large consolidated groupings.

Graphic 3
Low and middle income Americans are less likely to use broadband.

Low and middle income Americans less likely to use broadband.

(NTIA's A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age. Sept. 2004.)

It should come as no surprise that without pressure from us, policy makers and corporate leaders will blaze ahead with broadband development in ways that will likely leave out community voices. As the data illustrates, broadband is not yet affordable, it is not fully accessible, and in many parts of the country, it's not even available. And, in areas where broadband is available, competing technologies and service providers make the decisions difficult. Thus, we must continue to work with our government and corporate leaders to make sure that plans and policies which promote an appropriate broadband infrastructure are enacted in a manner that includes and protects the needs of our communities.

Graphic 4
Hispanic- and African-Americans less likely to live in a household with broadband access.

Hispanic- and African-Americans less likely to live in a household
with broadband access.

(NTIA's A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age. Sept. 2004.)

A social contract, which provided for universal service, was first laid out in the 1934 Telecommunications Act and strengthened in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Now is a critical time to expand the social contract to include broadband deployment that is available to all communities, accessible to everyone irrespective of language or ability, and affordable.

There are several leverage points to expand the social contract. At the federal level, groups such as the Alliance for Public Technology, Consumers Union, the American Library Association, education groups, and CTCNet have played a major role in addressing federal policies. There are rumors that Congress will consider revising the Telecommunications Act during the next session. The last time this happened the community technology field was in its infancy, but this time we need to be prepared. We also need to ensure that the federal legislature keeps the pressure on the FCC to maintain and protect universal service.

States also play a critical role in the deployment of broadband. State public utilities commissions currently regulate telecommunication companies and thus have influence through the regulatory decisions they make. Many states have developed “universal service programs,” which support low or no cost access for certain groups so that access can be available to all. California hosts a number of universal service programs including the California Teleconnect Fund which provides telecommunication discounts to schools, libraries, community-based organizations, and community-based health organizations. State legislatures and public utilities commissions can also promote broadband deployment. The importance of a ubiquitous advanced telecommunications infrastructure has been recognized by many studies, prompting several states, including Michigan,2 Illinois,3 Idaho, and Texas, to take action.4

We at the California Community Technology Policy Group (CCTPG), a collaborative of over 200 community-based organizations, have worked to support the equitable expansion of broadband across the state. We took a leadership role in educating legislators about the promise and challenges concerning broadband deployment in California, and worked with them to pass a law (SB 1563) requiring that the state public utilities commission (PUC), the body which regulates utilities (like telephones and electricity), develop a plan for broadband deployment in California. Our efforts included individual meetings with legislators and their staff, testifying at hearings, and organizing a letter-writing campaign among our supporters. We then worked with the PUC as they developed their plan.

Cities also play a critical role in the deployment of broadband by providing local permits and negotiating local cable franchise agreements. Increasingly, some cities have begun to envision how broadband could be strategically deployed and are integrating this thinking into their planning processes.5 The Mayor of Los Angeles has just formed a panel to look at the role broadband and new technologies can play in supporting economic development throughout the city. While some cities, such as Philadelphia, have taken a leadership role in planning for public wireless networks, the telecommunications industry is lobbying state legislators to restrict cities' abilities to establish these public networks.6 Community technology advocates can and should create a forum for community technology by proactively becoming part of these conversations.

A Call to Action
So, you're now convinced that shaping a new social contract which makes broadband accessible, available and affordable is a crucial challenge, and you're willing to take action. Right?

It's important to remember that the more voices across the country advocating for affordable, accessible and available broadband access, the more likely change will happen. A few small actions by many people can help turn the tide. Let us offer a number of ideas and resources you can use to play a part in the push for broadband.

•  Get more informed about the issues. There are many sources for more information about broadband deployment and why it's important. See the box below for some of these resources.

•  Choose your strategies. Broadband is an issue at every level of policy (federal, state and local). Decide where you want to leverage your voice.

•  Get involved. There are a number of groups working to address broadband issues at the federal, state and local levels. Work with your local and regional colleagues to find out what's going on in your area, and who is working on the issues you care about, and join their work. If you can't find a group that's right, then start one!

For More Information…

Use the "search" feature on HowStuffWorks for more on VoIP, broadband, etc.

The Center for Digital Democracy has developed a Declaration of Digital Rights.

TechPolicyBank offers data about digital gap and examples of cities and states that have taken action in particular broadband-related areas.

The Policy section of the CTCNet website also offers information about the issues and highlights some of the groups doing work across the country.

CCTPG has done a lot of broadband-related workand has policy statements, written comments, and how-to checklists.

1 See, for example, Mark Cooper, Expanding the Digital Divide & Falling Behind on Broadband. Why a Telecommunications Policy of Neglect Is Not Benign, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, October 2004.

2 In late 2002, the State of Michigan passed a “Broadband Package” of laws to support the development of broadband infrastructure throughout the state. Citing numerous benefits to the state economy and its residents, the legislative analyst suggests that broadband “could lead to an increase of 500,000 jobs in the state within a ten-year period and a $440,000 gain in [ Michigan 's] gross state product.” Michigan House Legislative Analysis, House Committee: Energy and Technology, Senate Committee: Technology and Energy. Second Analysis of Broadband Package, SB 880, 881, 999. July 12, 2002.

3 In Illinois, a recently commissioned report offers recommendations for accelerating the deployment of broadband in underserved communities in that state. The specific mention in the report of community technology as a strategy to deliver broadband access and technology literacy training is also noteworthy. Edward Feser and Timothy Green, for the Office of Rural Affairs, Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois Online: Recommendations for Universal Broadband Access. October 2004.

4 For other information about the economic development arguments related to broadband, see also Gartner, Inc., One Gigabit or Bust Initiative, Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), 2003, and TechNet, The State Broadband Index, 2003.

5 Charles H. Kaylor and Christopher Steins, “Today's Scheme for Tomorrow's Technology,” Planning , July 2004.

6 See, for instance, Marc Levy, “Telecoms lobbyists push to quash Philadelphia's municipal wireless plan,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , November 24, 2004. See also “Telecom Giants Try to Crush Community Wireless,” Free Press covereage of the wireless community battle.

Linda Fowells is Vice President, Programs and Public Affairs of Community Partners, a nonprofit organization that accelerates ideas into action for the public good. She is also an active member of the CCTPG Steering Committee. Richard Chabrán is Chair of CCTPG. He teaches, consults and speaks regularly on issues related to community technology and new digital innovations. Original graphics created by Oscar Madrigal, Program Assistant at Community Partners and a member the CCTPG Steering Committee.



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