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TMT 2020: A Report From the Silicon Flatirons Conference – “Closing the Digital Divide”

228555691_mainEDITOR’S NOTE:  We are excited to present this entry in our new TMT2020 series, which reflects the key technology, media, and telecoms legal issues that are expected to impact today’s organizations and tomorrow’s marketplace.  It also provides an opportunity to highlight contributions by TMT associates across our global offices and practice areas. 

On September 17, 2015 the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado hosted a conference discussing universal service in the age of broadband. The conference, entitled “Closing the Digital Divide,” examined the FCC’s ongoing efforts to reform universal service and compared those efforts to access to broadband (both wired and wireless) internationally. The conference addressed a range of topics including: 1) low income access to broadband, 2) rural and tribal lands, 3) international broadband access, and closed with a discussion on putting infrastructure into perspective. In this article, we focus on the “digital divide” policy debate over U.S. and international broadband access.

What is the “Digital Divide”?

For background, the “digital divide” emerged as a concept in the 1990s when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued a series of reports entitled “Falling through the Net.” The NTIA reports highlighted the concern that Americans without access to the Internet are at a significant disadvantage compared to Americans with Internet access. Recently, The Council of Economic Advisers issued a report entitled “Mapping the Digital Divide,” which noted while the US has made progress in closing the digital divide, “there is still a substantial distance to go, particularly in our poorest neighborhoods and most rural communities.” Using this latest report as a backdrop, the Silicon Flatirons Center brought together various stakeholders to discuss the evolution of universal service and broadband access.

Broadband Access Today

Panelists discussed the importance of access to broadband both within the US and internationally, noting that increasing broadband access promotes cultural and commercial exchange, open government and democracy, and allows individuals to better participate in the job market. Numerous panelists also emphasized the importance of students having equal access to broadband in order to keep up with their peers. On this issue, several panelists, including John Wilkins, Managing Director at the FCC, discussed how the FCC’s lifeline program may expand to include broadband access, noting that modernizing universal service and lifeline will be an area of focus for the FCC this year.

Broadband as a Civil Right?

Throughout the conference, panelists were asked to contemplate whether broadband should be considered a civil and/or human right. While all panelists agreed that access to broadband is important, some, including Nicol Turner-Lee, Vice President and Chief Research Policy Officer at Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, expressed concern that broadband is still at an experimental stage of what it can deliver, and therefore—while important—may “not be at the point where it should be considered a right.

Balancing the Costs of Broadband Access

One of the most prominent themes throughout the conference was how to find the right balance between increasing broadband access and the cost of doing so. Panelists noted that the definition of “broadband” may vary depending on individual household needs, and because of this it is important to engage with the communities and local groups and consider different options to achieve their needs. For example, in many places it is not financially reasonable to run cable to the area, and therefore panelists noted that we should be looking into alternative options such as satellite and solar power. Panelists stated that in many cases, communities would find some access to broadband a great step forward, even if that access is not currently capable of supporting advanced services such as video streaming. As Stephen C. Hillard, President and Chief Executive Officer at Council Tree Investors summarized, when increasing access to broadband “we want to avoid making perfect the enemy of good.”

International Considerations

When discussing what other countries can take away from the US experience, panelists stressed that there is no “right way” to approach broadband expansion, and the most important thing a country can do is figure out what is needed before starting the process. Scott Marcus, independent expert, underscored the importance of developing technology-neutral policy regimes for increased adoption of broadband globally. Marcus noted that broadband adoption looks very different in other countries, and trying to push the technology in a way the market does not support is the wrong solution.

Interested parties can watch the entire conference here.