The Future Depends on Technology, Competition and Innovation

The Future Depends on Technology, Competition and Innovation

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What follows are comments from Mr. Jason Llorenz at the 2012 MMTC Broadband Policy Summit – High Tech Policy Lunch. See P365’s interview with Mr. Llorenz following his lunch comments here.

We are in the midst of a broad conversation about the future of the Internet, and I am pleased that the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership and its member organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), LISTA and others are a part of that discussion.

Today, we live in a “culture of free” online – people assume that the applications, content and tools that we all love and use shall be free – when, in reality, there is no free lunch online, begging the question, ‘who pays?’

While simple, this statement is at the crux of the policy debates about the shape of the Internet of today and tomorrow.

We are also, as we know, in the midst of a conversation about how our online world will or will not provide for the protections we assume in the brick and mortar world, including assumptions about ownership of intellectual property, defense of one’s identity, and, our common expectations of anonymity, privacy and security.

The future of the Internet and, for communities of color in particular, the conversation about closing the gap in broadband adoption and digital literacy for the long-term economic advancement of all Americans is focused on a couple of areas:

We must continue advancement of high-speed broadband services – both the deployment of next-generation, high-speed wireless and the continued investment in high-capacity wire-line broadband – while remaining focused on closing an ongoing gap in broadband adoption.

We must have a digitally literate, competitive America where all communities are prepared to transact online and have meaningful access to broadband via all of the technologies and platforms that facilitate economic, social and civic participation in the global economy.  That means broadband access at home, in the palm of our hand, at school and for work – both the work we do as employees, and the work we create as entrepreneurs.

To achieve those goals, we must address what virtually every advocate, government official and private sector stakeholder agrees is a looming spectrum crunch that could halt investment and innovation, and harm the very communities that have most benefited from the advancement of wireless broadband.

We need action on spectrum auctions that make more spectrum available to continue the deployment of high speed wireless.  The importance of this was made ever so clear by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council’s call on the Martin Luther King Jr. day of service to make more spectrum available.

On a day synonymous with civil rights and the advancement of communities of color, MMTC signaled the importance of spectrum by calling for decisive action that facilitates investment, creates jobs, and promotes rapid access to wireless technologies to communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.

High-speed wireless can, in time, be a viable competitor to  wire-line broadband – a significant opportunity to close the digital divide – but only if we guarantee the availability of the spectrum necessary to make that happen.

The consequences of inaction – the “doomsday scenario” – for African Americans, Latinos, and members of poor rural and urban communities could be, according to many analysts, increased prices for service and tightening of data caps to lower output demands on scarce spectrum resources in order to keep networks functioning. This could be disastrous for all of the communities we care about.

Moreover, the entire regulatory ecosystem – Congress, the FCC, the White House – and our communities must continue to evolve our thoughts about the broad category of policies we develop with regard to technology, competition and innovation.

The networks that feed our broadband needs are not the same networks they were just a few years ago.  The pace of innovation has meant that what once were distinct providers – cable here, and the bells there, for example – are all in the same arena, competing with overlapping services and fighting to invest in the next generation of broadband technology.  And it takes new thinking for laws, regulations and public policy to keep up with business realities.

In the past months, we saw visceral reactions and mass online protests to the implementation of SOPA and PIPA – the ladies of The View were even talking about this stuff – and mass engagement with regard to AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile.

In times like these, we, as a community of advocates must be thoughtful that we are bringing our communities along by spreading a real education about the impact of policy issues on their daily lives, and that we don’t wind up throwing the baby out with the bath water in so doing.

In both my examples, despite inflated rhetoric to the contrary, some form of online privacy protection is still needed to protect the inventions and property of those who are still trying to become entrepreneurs – the folks we want to be a part of the economic opportunities facilitated by broadband.  And, I believe, we will look back in some months or years ahead at T-Mobile, which has the same significant challenges to its business today as it did a year ago, and probably see that, however those wireless assets are ultimately leveraged or sold, it’ll probably look much like the way a reasonable, negotiated deal, with concessions, would have looked with AT&T.

In both cases, advocacy is always needed – but that advocacy must also be informed by the need for investment and innovation, which cannot be looked at through a dated prism of the local “ma and pa steel” plant.

Finally, getting people online and developing a digital culture in the hardest to reach communities and those most lacking in digital skills also means getting state and local constituencies and governments in play.

State and local taxation of wireless services, which in some states can add as much as 16% to a family’s wireless bill – threatens to erect price barriers to access that could halt the adoption of wireless that has benefited communities.

States must also prioritize the transition to the digital economy by prioritizing the goal of connecting all children to digital tools – eBooks, iPads and home computers – and leveraging social media and online tools in the classroom in a productive way.  We must not only be where our children are, but also bring our children to the technologies that they must be prepared to leverage for their future.  So many of the good jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities of the future are online, and so our schools and pedagogy must catch up.

As an example, the app market was a $7 billion market in 2011, expected to double at the end of 2012, and to reach more than $30 billion annually by 2015.  This is a market that did not exist just years ago.  It is a priority, therefore, for our children to be ready for the digital entrepreneurship opportunities that can be had in this new marketplace.  App development training and coding is the new vocational education.

In addition to preparing our children, we must also be assured that we’re paving new avenues of opportunity for local organizations to educate poor families about the value of getting online.  Public private partnerships like the Internet Essentials Program or Connect to Compete makes this kind of engagement possible, and also helps families in need get online by providing affordable, accessible options for broadband access at home.

Local governments also must be educated and coached on their entrance into the digital world.  More e-gov services online will get more communities to adopt broadband and make digital literacy a priority because of the practical role those services play in their lives.

We have come far, but still have quite a ways to go.  And we must work collectively to instill in our leaders and ourselves the notion that we are all in the fight for digital equality and we must work together to create productive online communities that benefit us and the nation at large.

Jason Llorenz, Esq. is Executive Director of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP). Follow on twitter: @hispanicttp. For more: www.httponline.org.

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