Bridging the Digital Divide: The Importance of IP-based Infrastructure to Communities of Color

by Ralph B. Everett, Esq.

Telephone companies are in the process of replacing their copper-wire network with fiber running all the way to homes and businesses, a nationwide trend in both urban centers and rural communities. This technological transition within the core of our nation’s telecommunications networks is expected to bring faster speeds and improved broadband access to communities of all sizes.

The question that comes to mind here at the Joint Center is whether this transition is relevant to communities of color, and if so, what policy issues need to be addressed to hasten the economic and other benefits the transition can generate.

My good friend Hilary Shelton of the NAACP observes that an important question we must consider is how this transition will help communities that have traditionally been left behind. As he rightly notes, communities of color are not where we want or need to be on broadband access or adoption rates, but we are making progress. Marc Morial of the National Urban League notes that it’s time to have a broad, engaged, informed discussion about the transition, and he suggests that public policy has to incent, encourage and be part of this new 21st Century formula.  The question he poses with regard to the transition is whether public policy will keep pace, or be the “dog chasing the car.”

Brent Wilkes of LULAC believes broadband adoption is more important than phone adoption, and sees the IP transition as one of the best deals the country faces because it will provide more technology capabilities to communities of color at no extra cost to the consumer. As he says, “what’s not to like?” about the upgrade to all-fiber infrastructure.

Debbie Goldman of the Communications Workers of America said that as the transition proceeds, the following principles should guide us as we change the regulatory framework for the IP world: investment, good jobs, universal quality service, consumer protection, public safety, network reliability.

What is clear is that the transition is happening – and the FCC has recognized this by recently creating a Task Force to determine the policy ramifications that will certainly follow such a massive upgrade in the nation’s digital infrastructure. The Joint Center will follow the transition closely and keep several issues in mind as it unfolds. First, the Joint Center believes that bringing more and faster broadband connections to communities of color is important; we must not lose sight of that as the transition occurs. Second, there must be clear and understandable information for all consumers about the transition and how it may impact communications services. At the same time, all stakeholders must continue make sure that consumers are aware of the benefits of using emerging applications to help them improve their lives. Policies that drive adoption and use are just as important as facilitating a smooth and quick upgrade of the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure.

Ralph B. Everett is President and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. More information on Mr. Everett and his work can be found at the Joint Center website.

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