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This opinion piece was originally published in Morning Consult.
Low-income Americans; Black, Hispanic and Native Americans; the elderly; Americans with a high school education or less; and rural Americans are much more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Ours remains a nation where too many people, often our most vulnerable citizens, are unconnected or under-connected.
The digital divide may have made the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t new.
For much of the past quarter-century, Washington policymakers have ignored the digital divide. In more recent years, some public officials, for political reasons, have identified the digital divide as primarily a rural issue, noting that approximately 5 million rural American households can’t access broadband networks. In reality, the number of rural households that can’t access broadband is dwarfed by the roughly 20 million American households that can’t afford Internet access, and that number almost certainly has increased as a result of the pandemic.
Today, Washington finally seems willing to engage in addressing the digital divide. What we need now are not the patchwork solutions of the past, but a thoughtful, fully funded, comprehensive effort to ensure broadband connectivity for all Americans.
My colleagues and I at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration identified the disparity in access to Internet technology in 1995 in “Falling Through the Net: Haves and Have-nots in Rural and Urban America.” In that report, we noted that several factors impacted access to technology: income, race, education, age, and geography.
The difference today, however, is that broadband access has become critical to living life in our country. It is simply impossible to fully participate in society, particularly during a pandemic, without broadband access.
In 2020, 27 percent of elderly Americans don’t have broadband access. And 40 percent of small businesses in New York City are located in gigabit deserts and don’t have access to copious broadband networks.
As many as 30 percent of K-12 students, according to a report by Common Sense Media, don’t have the tools necessary to engage in remote learning. For many this will mean no continued learning during COVID-19 lockdowns.
And many of the 70 percent of residents on rural tribal lands who remain without access to fixed high-capacity broadband, according to The American Library Association, are unable to continue with their studies or job online.
How can we bridge the digital divide, thoughtfully and effectively?
Map availability and affordability
The Federal Communications Commission, and NTIA, in conjunction with state regulators, must find a way to accurately map broadband availability and affordability. You can’t fix what you don’t understand, and our regulators are flying blind when it comes to the true state of broadband connectivity in America today.
For some years the FCC has defined broadband as 25 megabytes per second down and 3 mps up. That standard was insufficient when it was adopted, and is now laughably outdated.
In a report I wrote for the incoming Obama administration in 2008, I called for a 100 mps national standard by 2010. Today, when video conferencing products such as Zoom are near essential tools for education, commerce, and entertainment, a low-bandwidth, asymmetrical standard is unacceptable.
The FCC must now update and modernize its definition of “broadband.” The starting point for any future broadband standard should be 100/100 mps, with an understanding it may take additional time for rural communities to reach that standard.
Modernize and adequately fund connectivity programs
The FCC’s Lifeline program, established during the Reagan era, provides subsidies to low-income families to enable connectivity to telecommunications devices. The current program’s provision of less than $10 per month for connecting one telecommunications device per household is far from adequate to enable meaningful connectivity.
Congress and the FCC must rethink and re-establish the program for the current broadband era.
Use public spaces to improve accessibility
In addition, there are three key things schools, libraries, and other public facilities could do to help reduce the digital divide and provide more equitable access to the Internet. The first two of which can be done immediately:
- Use schools and libraries as community WiFi hot spots. This requires a few things, all of which are possible right away: With relatively minimal funding, schools and libraries could place more outdoor access points on their facilities. This actively broadcasts the school or library’s WiFi signal to the local community so that students and – potentially – other community members can have access to Internet resources. The reach of outdoor, unlicensed WiFi is more limited than the other options below, but it can easily reach most of the block that the building is on.
- Schools and libraries can help provide greater connectivity by providing WiFi hotspots to students, library patrons, and their families. There are a number of good options, not just from the main carriers, but from more education-focused providers like Kajeet, ENA, and Mobile Citizen.
- A final, more strategic solution that will take longer to implement but that holds significant promise for permanently resolving or reducing the homework gap: We should consider schools, libraries, and other institutions as anchor locations for true community-focused cellular Internet access.
Using either the Educational Broadband Services spectrum, or the Community Broadband Radio Services spectrum, schools, libraries, and other public facilities could provide secure, low-cost, and high capacity cellular wireless Internet to students (and other community members, potentially) across New York City.
Although the upfront costs of building out cellular data networks is more expensive than installing outdoor WiFi or purchasing hot spot plans, this solution would potentially cover much more of the city (indeed, all of it), and the long term total cost of ownership per student/community member is much, much less than paying ongoing fees for hot spot data plans.
We have a clear path toward full broadband connectivity. We can and should make connecting all Americans a national priority. We don’t have another quarter century to waste.
Image by bantersnaps via Unsplash
The Internet Society, in partnership with South Asia Network Operators Group (SANOG) recently concluded a five-week, hands-on training course for entry level network engineers and system administrators from South Asia. The online course Introduction to Network Operations, which took place from June 15 to July 19, prepared professionals to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the Internet. The training provided practical learning about UNIX/Linux, networking, and the Domain Name System (DNS) to over 40 participants from Research Education Networks (RENs), government institutions, network operators, universities, and private institutions. SANOG subject matter experts Thilina Pathirana from Sri Lanka and Gazi Zehadul Kabir from Bangladesh moderated via Moodle, an e-learning platform.
Skills and Knowledge for Digital Transformation
The course aimed to prepare young engineers for the future. The technical skills and hands-on knowledge enable them to build expertise to advance professionally in their chosen field of network and system administration. The course also served as a common platform for South Asia community members to actively interact, exchange knowledge, and learn from one another.
For participants, the course was a great learning experience. “It was the best online course I had yet,” said Afaq Ahmed from Pakistan. For young engineers Shreekar Tiwari from Nepal and Randhir Kanojia from India, the course provided practical experience and skills to lead digital transformation in the region.
Deepthi Gunasekara, an engineer from Sri Lanka, excelled during the course. She was offered a job by the Lanka Education And Research Network (LEARN) in Sri Lanka. She is now an Assistant Engineer at LEARN, a National Research and Education Network (NREN) that not only interconnects educational and research institutions across the country, but provides network-related services.
“It was an excellent experience on learning and implementing DNS. Internet Society Network Operations course was very helpful for me, especially [as] it brought an opportunity to uplift my professional career [and earn] a new job,” said Deepthi.
Course moderator Gazi Zehadul Kabir, a member of the National Network Design Committee of Bangladesh, was thrilled to learn a freshly-mentored engineer got a job. He said the course enabled even greater interaction with course participants online. “The Internet Society brought a new era for us with this online course, where [we were] more closer to students,” said Gazi.
For more that 15 years he has been part of the South Asia technical community. He is happy to have this opportunity to pass on skills he curated over the years to young people. His wish is that the Internet Society should continue strengthening the capacity of the South Asia Internet community to take advantage of future opportunities.
Image by Kimberly Farmer via Unsplash
The Internet Society and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work together on designing and deploying community networks, ensuring local connectivity initiatives achieve long-term sustainability, and other areas of joint interest.
APC is an international network of civil society organizations founded in 1990 dedicated to empowering and supporting people working for peace, human rights, development, and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Both organizations have vast experience in growing the Internet through capacity building, advocating for ICT and infrastructure policies, and engaging local communities. This MoU updates and replaces a previous version. We are excited to further advance the work we’ve been doing together for nearly ten years.
The MoU lays out two key areas of joint interest:
- Developing an enabling environment for communities and local entrepreneurs to solve their own connectivity challenges through design and deployment of community networks, training and capacity building efforts, and highlighting the benefits of connecting the unconnected.
- Ensuring that local connectivity initiatives are able to reach long-term sustainability, support development opportunities, and contribute to meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in relation to connectivity.
“There remains a profound connectivity gap in many parts of the world. Better connectivity and information exchange strengthens democratic processes, spurs economic growth, and enables sharing of culture and ideas. We’re thrilled to work with APC to help increase connectivity via community networks — networks developed by local communities, with local communities, for local communities,” said Jane Coffin, Senior Vice President, Internet Grow at the Internet Society.
“APC finds the relationship with the Internet Society to be very positive and collaborative on various aspects, and complementary in nature, having contributed critically to the advancement of the community network movement in recent years,” said a representative from APC.
Image from the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Wireless Training Centre in Guna, India ©Atul Loke
People around the world are relying on the Internet to keep them connected to everyday life, but Indigenous communities in North America are being left behind by companies and governments. Lack of connectivity means many are unable to access even basic information and healthcare. And while COVID-19 has hit Indigenous communities especially hard, lack of access means they can’t use services that connected populations consider critical, such as remote learning and teleworking.
We must address this critical gap.
For years, the Internet Society has worked with those very communities, along with network operators, technologists, civil society, academia, and policymakers – bringing them together to discuss what can be done collectively to narrow the digital divide. We do this through our Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) and the pre-Summit Trainings: Community Networks and Policy and Advocacy.
This year, though we can’t meet in person, we’ll hold a virtual event.
We’re excited to announce that registration is now open for the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit.
The Summit will take place October 5-9, 2020, with training sessions beginning the first week of September. Those who register for the Summit before Friday, September 11th will receive a swag bag and materials for hands-on training prior to the Summit. (Training registration will be open until August 28th.)
The 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit
Though we won’t be able to gather together in Winnipeg, Canada, as we had hoped, we are looking forward to gathering virtually to continue these important conversations. The venue is a bit different than we anticipated, but many aspects of the 2020 ICS will be the same.
We’ll still talk about many of the pressing issues Indigenous communities in North America face as they work to access the Internet on their own terms:
- Sovereignty and creating a virtual nation
- Access to resources such as infrastructure, spectrum, and backhaul
- Capacity building
- The Tribal Priority Window for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum and what 2.5GHz spectrum can be used for
We’re also working hard to include the features that make the ICS a must-attend event, including networking, team building, and unique experiences. The Indigenous Connectivity Summit has always been and will always be a place to foster human connections.
Following last year’s success, we are also offering two pre-Summit trainings: Policy and Advocacy and Community Networks. Participants of these trainings will hear from experts in the field about how to build, maintain, and operate community networks. They’ll also be equipped to fight for the policies that impact their community’s ability to deploy connectivity solutions on their own terms.
Each course will last six weeks, consisting of one hour-and-a-half long session per week. Sessions will begin the week of September 1, 2020 and run through the week of the Summit, culminating in a virtual hands-on training and the creation of this year’s policy recommendations, which will guide the community’s advocacy work for the next year.
We hope these courses and the Summit itself will equip participants with the skills and network they need to take advantage of emerging opportunities for connectivity as a result of COVID-19 – and to connect their communities on their own terms.
Please join us for this year’s Indigenous Connectivity Summit and Trainings – and share the word with your partners and community!
Image of a community networks training program participant in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories ©Angela Gzowski
We can only be successful in creating an Internet for everyone if everyone is part of the effort. That’s why the Internet Society is thrilled to be entering into a partnership with the European Internet Exchange Association (Euro-IX).
The partnership was made official with a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 14 July. This formal agreement builds on an existing collaboration between the two organizations, who have worked together since 2012. But, whether it’s helping to bring cheaper and faster Internet to the world through the data provided in the IXP Database or making the Internet more secure by supporting the Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS), our work has only just begun.
Kjetil Otter Olsen, the chair of Euro-IX said, “The Internet Society has been an excellent supporter of Internet exchange points (IXPs) for many years and has lent the support of its teams across the world to promoting the benefits of peering for Internet networks and the end users of those networks globally.
“Signing this MoU, on behalf of Euro-IX and the community of IXPs we represent, reflects our shared commitment with the Internet Society to continue this work into the future.
“This MoU extends our existing relationship to continue to promote key projects that will improve routing security via the MANRS program and automated and accurate data collection from IXPs via the IXP Database (IXPDB), as well as to share ideas, experiences and collaborate on new projects for the betterment of the Internet and IXPs.”
Sharing and collaboration are key to creating a robust and secure Internet, which is accessible to all.
“One of the most amazing things about the Internet is the people behind it,” says Michuki Mwangi, Senior Director for Internet Technology and Development. “Our shared belief that it takes a community to build the Internet is why we will be able to reach our goal of bringing a fast, affordable and secure Internet to the world. I’m excited to see what this partnership will bring.”
We’re stronger together than we are apart. Let’s keep teaming up to create an Internet for everyone.
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Image by Max Böttinger via Unsplash