FCC Failure and the Digital Divide

The Federal Communications Commission is set to unveil its national broadband plan this Tuesday, and already there are signs that the plan will not live up to its goal of providing Web access to 100 million Americans. Whether because the plan does not increase competition among broadband service providers, or because any move to find funding for the plan would receive energetic opposition from the industry and politicians, the bill's ultimate implementation will likely be a failure in the eyes of most citizens.

And that's not just bad news because U.S. broadband providers are some of the slowest and most expensive in the developed world. The wide disparity in internet access in the U.S. is quickly becoming a matter of grave social and political importance. As Megan Tady explained in a ColorLines article last year, "more than 40 percent of all homes are not connected to the Internet or use antiquated 'dial-up' technology," and that, "as high-speed Internet becomes increasingly expensive, middle- and low-income families are less able to afford it."

The problem with the digital divide is that it's self-perpetuating. A report by the Social Science Research Council—commissioned by the FCC to guide their national broadband plan—found that "broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it—and residents of low-income communities know this." That means that the digital divide fuels larger socio-economic divides, which leads RaceWire blogger Jamilah King to call the broadband companies' uneven access models "Redlining 2.0."

As Tady argued in her ColorLines article, "The digital divide extends beyond connectivity; many people don’t have the training, skills or equipment to get online, or they live in an area that has been redlined by Internet service providers who find little incentive to build out to their communities." That's why discussions of "competition" between broadband service providers fall flat: no matter how many companies enter the market, the fight for customers in high income communities will always be more rewarding for the industry than providing access to low income communities. That's also why the FCC's plan—which marks the biggest opportunity to restructure the way American's access the internet—held such hope, and why it may prove to be such a disappointment.

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