A Spectrum Shortage Threatens to Widen the Digital Divide

A Spectrum Shortage Threatens to Widen the Digital Divide


By Melanie Campbell, President, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation

A Black History Month pop quiz:

1.    Who was Mary White Ovington?

2.    What was Lewis Latimers contribution to Black History?

3.    Who was Frederick M. Jones?

If you’re like millions of African Americans, especially younger ones, you’ll pull out your phone and start tapping on the screen.  Tens of millions of us bought Internet-ready mobile phones in recent years and for a lot of us, these phones have become almost an extension of ourselves.  (Just ask a teenager about texting.)

For the African American community, the growth of mobile phones has been remarkable.  Our use of mobile Internet services is much higher than it is for whites.

For those who live in underserved areas or who can’t commit to a long-term contract because of frequent job changes, the mobile Internet is a lifeline.  It’s also a low-cost option compared with even basic computers, which makes these so-called “smart” phones the best option in years to help close the Digital Divide.

But ironically, all this use may become too much of a good thing.  This week, CNN Money Tech pointed out “the problem, known as the “spectrum crunch,” threatens to increase the number of dropped calls, slow down data speeds and raise customers’ prices for cell phone service.

A Washington Post article recently described what our mobile phone experience could be like in a year or two: “Prepare to sit and wait. That call to Grandma might not get through until the congestion clears.”

The problem isn’t with us, it’s with all that data whizzing back and forth among our smartphones.  The airwaves that carry this data are rapidly becoming overwhelmed.  They’re becoming the mobile equivalent of the Los Angeles 405 freeway during morning rush hour.

With the African-American community disproportionately relying on mobile, this is a crucial issue with the potential to increase, rather than close the digital divide

Now that Congress has authorized the FCC to auction underutilized spectrum to wireless companies, the FCC needs to move to make more spectrum available to handle our mobile needs as  swiftly.   We need them right now!

On so many levels, a robust, wide-open auction would be a winner for Congress and President Obama!  This sort of auction — open to all wireless companies — is brilliant in its simplicity.  All companies bid, the highest bidder gets the license and the federal government takes home billions of dollars.  Onto this auction can be layered new incentives for innovative minority and women owned new entrants, to provide the wireless industry with more diversity and more competition.

Finally, the last airwave auctions were back in 2008.  The FCC set rigid rules and conditions on those participating in parts of the auction.  The result?  The bids were low, the federal government lost significant revenue, and a court of appeals struck the FCC’s auction rules after the auction’s design seriously undermined minority participation.

We believe, free, competitive auctions with minority incentives are a winner for the consumer as well as the federal government. They help more people get access to broadband which in turn provides a pathway to education, employment opportunities, better healthcare, and easier interactions with government.

Moreover, it makes it a snap to find out that:

1.    In 1909, Mary White Ovington was responsible for the call that led to the founding of the NAACP; friend and trusted colleague of W.E.B. Du Bois; board member and officer of NAACP over 40 years.

2.    Lewis Latimer was the African American inventor who in 1876 drafted the drawings and documents for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the earliest version of the telephone. Latimer went one to invent electric lighting fixtures as chief patent expert for Thomas Edison, in addition to scores of other patents and innovations including the safety elevator and an early version of air conditioning.

3.    Frederick M. Jones held more than 60 patents in a variety of fields, but refrigeration was his specialization. In 1935, he invented the first automatic mobile refrigeration system for long-haul trucks.  Later, the system was adapted to a variety of other carriers, including ships and railway cars.

Happy Black History Month everyone!  Remember that knowledge is power!


The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (The National Coalition) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing civic engagement and voter participation in Black and underserved communities. The National Coalition strives to create an enlightened community by engaging people in all aspects of public life through service/volunteerism, advocacy, leadership development and voting.



  1. My cellular bill is already high enough! I can't afford any more increases. I hope that the FCC can prevent this spectrum crunch, while we still have time to prevent a crisis! Thanks for the insightful article on this. I had no idea this is what we're facing if something isn't done to prevent it!

  2. Having internet access is like having running water and electricity. It's a must have. It's the gateway to employment, healthy living, education and more. If minorities most often access the internet via mobile devices then I see ensuring there is enough spectrum to allow for continued, uninterrupted use is a social justice issue. Great article! Will be sharing with my friends!

  3. I applauded the National Broadband Plan and welcomed the idea of connecting all Americans, but now it appears we're going the other direction. As the article states, mobile Internet usage is huge in minority communities and has been a large part of the increase in broadband adoption. Now, due to circumstances that are out of our control this tool will be taken away from many who will no longer be able to afford it. If this is the case then I guess the plan failed.

  4. One of the best ideas I've heard of to help with this "spectrum crunch" are incentive auctions. Incentive auctions to sell off unused or underused spectrum is a win-win for everyone. It will help to provide faster service, create jobs, improve the issue of 'dropped calls" and keep my cell phone costs down!! __