Panelists Uphold Need for Broadband Equity, Seek to Move Debate from Net Neutrality to Community Impacts
The Center for Social Inclusion (CSI) partnered with the Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science to present a national symposium on community-scale broadband. The event—Advancing Community Broadband: Transforming Community Economics Through Broadband—took place on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, December 7, and brought together scholars, practitioners and advocates to discuss strategies for re-envisioning the frames that drive our national policy discourse on broadband. Moving the conversation about broadband beyond the net neutrality debate, the event helped draw attention to the role that high-speed Internet can play in promoting equitable and sustainable development across communities and regions. CSI convened the event as part of its ongoing work on community-scale broadband and the need to reframe universal access as a 21st-century racial justice issue.
Melissa L. Bradley, Chief Executive Officer of the Tides Network and a member of CSI’s advisory board, delivered the keynote address, underscoring the urgent need to address those who have remained on the far side of the digital divide even as the U.S. has become a global leader in technological innovation.
Following Ms. Bradley’s remarks, the first panel, “Framing the Discussion on Community-Scale Broadband,” explored the ongoing disparities in broadband access, the policy landscape around broadband, and some of the barriers that have hindered the development of community-scale infrastructure and networks. The panelists included Nolan Bowie, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Fellow of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University; Jabari Simama, author of Civil Rights to Cyber Rights: Broadband & Digital Equality in the Age of Obama (2009); Sascha Meinrath, Director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative; and Bruce Lincoln of the Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement at Columbia University. The panelists stressed the importance of underscoring the U.S.’s failure to create universal access through widespread infrastructure development instead of fixating on the lack of universal adoption, a framework that implies that the problem exists at the level of individual consumers. Noting that the debate over the necessity of universal access has taken place many times in the past in the context of public education, voting rights, cable television and other democratizing institutions and technologies, the panelists emphasized that broadband access must be upheld as a right, not a privilege. They cited several successful models of community-scale development and urged partnerships between government agencies and private social entrepreneurs in order to maximize the innovation and efficacy of community-scale projects.
The second panel, “Community-Scale Broadband Models and Strategy,” brought together several panelists with direct experience developing and implementing community-scale projects, along with voices from the media and policy arenas. Craig Settles of Successful.com, Plinio Ayala of Per Scholas and Todd Wolfson of the Media Mobilizing Project each described community-scale projects, emphasizing the importance of tying the question of broadband access to the community’s existing needs and interests rather than addressing broadband as a stand-alone concern. Settles described the importance of crafting broadband infrastructure build-outs to meet local needs, emphasizing that such projects must, like any business, strive to be sustainable in the long-term. Ayala described how Per Scholas has helped communities use broadband to access professional development opportunities. Wolfson likewise described how his organization’s involvement in broadband advocacy emerged through its community organizing work and emphasized the importance of identifying how broadband adoption could specifically benefit low-income communities, rather than viewing adoption as an end in itself. Another panelist, Jacquie Jones, Executive Director of the National Black Programming Consortium, spoke to the important role high-speed Internet can play in supporting community-based media production and the inclusion of perspectives that are often left out or marginalized by mainstream media sources. The final panelist, Joanne Hovis, President-Elect of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, spoke to the need to encourage innovation and collaboration at all levels of government and between the public, non-profit and for-profit sectors – a model of creative partnerships that has received some support through Recovery Act programs, and one that may help to tackle infrastructure deficits too large to address at the local level.
The symposium was well-received and engaged a range of perspectives. The event drew attendees from the Administration and key agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, as well as leaders in the fight for broadband equity and media justice, among them Amalia Deloney of the Center for Media Justice and Matt Wood of the Media Access Project.
Said CSI Executive Director Maya Wiley, “We are honored to have had the chance to convene expert partners and allies to share social innovations and exciting new ways of thinking about broadband as a solution for so many community challenges. With effective infrastructure build-out, communities that were barred from opportunities in the 20th century can use 21st century technologies to create jobs, foster new businesses, improve education and connect to better health care.” CSI Project Coordinator Khalil Shahyd, who is leading the organization’s broadband work, concurred, promising that the symposium was just the beginning of a new conversation about how community-scale broadband can be leveraged to empower communities of color and other marginalized groups as agents of their own development.
For More Information:
- To view additional photos from the National Broadband Symposium, please visit the CSI Facebook page online here.
- Read more about CSI’s work on broadband issues:
- To learn more about CSI’s ongoing broadband work, please contact Project Coordinator Khalil Shahyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.248.2785 x3287.