Crime and the FCC

by Joseph Miller, Esq.

“It wasn’t a problem until it was in Iowa or on Wall Street where there are hardly any black people.” – Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), Boyz n the Hood

Media and technology policy leaders must become anti-poverty advocates.  As the first anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan passes, determining whether the Plan is actually working should be a function of a significant societal factor: its success in reducing the poverty rate.  This can only be achieved by discussing broadband in the context of the day-to-day realities of the poor.

In addition to establishing a framework for improving individuals’ access to high speed Internet, the Plan is a roadmap for improving the lives of individuals.  Even where broadband infrastructure is physically available, additional considerations militate against widespread adoption.  Last year, the FCC, the Department of Commerce, and leading research institutions—including the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies—released several reports discussing the barriers preventing people from adopting broadband.  In the Joint Center report, a perceived “lack of relevance” was a primary reason people decided not to adopt broadband. Even in stable households and communities, many consumers simply do not perceive the relevance of broadband.  But in many low-income households, this lack of relevance is also symptomatic of deeper societal ills.

Take crime, for example.  The Plan articulates an aggressive approach toward a world-class public safety broadband communications network.  The Commission has made good on this plan by initiating a rulemaking to standardize the network. Two bills before Congress—one sponsored by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the other by Representative Peter King (R-NY)—seek to strengthen the nation’s public safety broadband communications infrastructure.  But it’s unfortunate that it took the horrific events of September 11, 2001 for the federal government to muster enough momentum for this issue.  How many years have low-income communities been rife with crime?  When Raymond Towler was picked up in Cleveland, for rolling through a stop sign, and then sentenced to 29 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, the entire system failed.    It is not just a want of DNA evidence that has led to false incriminations and an over-reliance on racial profiling tactics—they have also been due to a lack of communication.

Unfortunately, crime disrupts learning in many low-income communities.  It reduces incentives for educational improvements, and school districts and donors are less likely to provide computers to schools without the resources to prevent equipment theft.  This eliminates an important gateway for promoting digital literacy for low-income children.

Poor educational attainment often leads to higher incidences of domestic violence among frustrated adults.  And domestic violence is an overlooked barrier to broadband adoption.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people with annual incomes lower than $25,000 have 3 times the risk of intimate partner violence than those who earn more than $50,000.  The sense of helplessness attendant to domestic violence can obfuscate the role of broadband.  In its safety plan for domestic violence victims, the Mayo Clinic advises against the use of home computers for seeking help and for the meticulous management of email passwords and web history data.  It is easy to see why domestic violence victims may find it safer and easier to avoid going online entirely, even where broadband is otherwise available.  Here’s an opportunity for the FCC to raise awareness about the vehicle’s utility.

The successful implementation of the National Broadband Plan requires interdisciplinary approaches that transcend the often superficial discussions as to the difference between wired and wireless broadband.  The economic and policy analysis that Washington insiders engage in, at forty-thousand feet, can be very interesting.  But in low-income communities throughout the United States, it is simply not enough.  It’s time for the FCC to leverage their authority to become crime stoppers.

Joseph Miller is Deputy Director and Senior Policy Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.  Follow him on Twitter.

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