Real Options for Poor Kids Without Broadband

Real Options for Poor Kids Without Broadband


In December, Forbes’ columnist Gene Marks told the world how he’d handle life and technology “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” Forget for a minute that Marks admits being a mediocre CPA (his profession), is not poor, a kid or Black.

What derails Marks’ Internet wisdom is his ignorance of broadband realities in urban America. Unfortunately, a sizable number of politicians, policymakers and others promoting solutions don’t really understand the realities of broadband in low-income communities either.

Whistling false assumptions

Mark’s article is sort of a corporate dog whistle. It’s unlikely many poor kids or their parents read Forbes, so they clearly were not the audience for Marks’ advice. He basically whistled (whether deliberately or not) to corporate America not to bother so much with digital inclusion programs. The poor can pull themselves out of the chasm of poverty by the digital bootstraps around them.

The assumption is not unusual. The lion’s share of the $7 billion broadband stimulus program went to build networks in rural areas. Washington, D.C. was the only major metro area receiving money to build an Internet network. Urban communities competed with rural for the $500 million piece of the program that supported computing centers and broadband adoption programs.

Rural areas definitely have a digital divide. But while spending billions to build networks here, some policymakers believe that the best tactic to close urban America’s digital divide is a good marketing campaign. Really. Broadband adoption campaigns are mostly marketing activities. The right spin, the right price point, the right magazine column combined with a nearby computing center, and poor folks will flock to the digital promise land once they understand why they need broadband.

Poor urban communities suffer less from a failure to understand the Internet’s value, as implied in Marks’ column, than a lack of effective broadband infrastructure. This undoubtedly challenges common perception but look around.

You frequently find Internet speeds barely above 756 K, low service quality and high prices. Large telcos do not expand fiber cables into areas where there is a low ROI, nor upgrade outdated infrastructure for the same reason.  A report last year on broadband in D.C. revealed Internet access is three times higher in poor communities ($31.17 per megabit/second) than in wealthy neighborhoods ($9.58 per megabit per second). A Department of Commerce survey report shows a similar trend nationwide.

In my national survey of economic development professionals, 80% of respondents say 25 – 50 Mbps or greater speed needed to enable individuals to improve job skills, transition into a new industry and start home businesses, or for local businesses to increase profitability. It’s doubtful we’ll see those kinds of speeds at affordable rates in many low-income areas if we have to rely on the large telcos.

God bless the child that’s got his own

In rural areas including Pulaski, TN and Steuben County, IN, and bigger cities such as Santa Monica, CA and Chattanooga, TN, communities own their broadband infrastructure and subsequently offer constituents massive data speeds (as much as a gigabit per second) at prices they can afford. With ownership of the infrastructure comes a transformation of education, healthcare delivery and local business competitiveness.

Urban communities can follow this path to success by executing a simple tactic that’s worked for rural Americas since the beginning of a century. Create a co-op or a nonprofit. Wally Bowen, founder and Executive Director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) explained the ins and outs of this tactic on my radio show, Gigabit Nation.

Creating a nonprofit or co-op is straightforward. The heavy lifting is structuring and governing the organization properly to raise money, keep control in the community’s hands and effectively run or outsource network operations. What’s more, incumbents will do all they can to keep communities from owning and running the actual business.

Effective needs assessment, business planning and engineering design are critical to success. Chattanooga’s fiber infrastructure, for example, supports a wireless network that delivers 16 Mbps of speed in both directions (symmetrical) between users and the Internet. This is 10 times faster than standard cellular networks, and more than the overhyped 4G services.

A nonprofit or co-op can pursue government grants, business investors and others, issue non-dividend yielding stock shares or tap into or create a community foundation dedicated to economic development. You need extensive financial due diligence and political support, yet simultaneously shield the network from bureaucratic and political mayhem.

Bowen states, “we have been marinated in a corporate culture that believes only a Fortune 500 company is able to deal with high tech.” But it ain’t necessarily so. Though it’s been a few years since I was that age, I’m comfortable saying that, if I were a poor Black kid, I’d want my neighbors to give community ownership a serious review.


    • Gene,

      Nice to see you again. Good to see you're reading my column.

      This is an interesting column you reference from John Bennett. Since you've referenced it before, I'll assume it's part of your counterpoint to my comments. So I'll respond in the context of his thoughts.

      My comments really aren't about Black folks being too poor to afford broadband, nor are they about what Bennett refers to as "false victimization." I've been doing broadband analysis and consulting work since 2005. One of these days maybe a greater segment of the population will understand that having Internet access, and having Internet speed and quality of service to achieve certain economic outcomes, are NOT one and the same.

      Here's a simple example. Lots of people say poor folks and others need the Net to find jobs. My annual survey of economic development professionals shows only 5% believe making job searching easier is how the Net will have the biggest impact on improving individuals' ability to raise their personal financial status.

      The main value, say the people who work every day on these issues, comes when low-income people can use the Internet to improve their job skills, transition to a new industry (with better opportunities) and start home-based businesses. And here's the kicker. Those pros say that communities need much faster broadband to achieve these goals than what's available in many urban AND rural communities.

      You should check out this item – It will help you with your research.

      In my column, the Youth Institute can afford much better broadband than what they're getting, but Verizon won't make the same technology available to them that's available in the wealthier areas of the same town. The big telcos rather consistently ignore low-income urban and rural areas with services that could pull them out of poverty when used effectively because the telcos can't make enough money from poor folks. Hell, they won't even serve rich folks if not enough of them are concentrated into a service area (one of the lessons I learned in my first book on community broadband).

      So, unless and until communities tackle the issue of availability of broadband that is capable of delivering the speed and quality sufficient to produce a number of significant economic outcomes, there will be a divide in what those with less money can do online relative to what wealthier folks can do. By the way, my advice to urban communities isn't to ask for free service since free is worth what you pay for it. I tell communities to build and own our own infrastructure, provide our own Internet services and applications.

      And just a side note. I've coached two adult women's soccer teams three times a week for quite a few years. If I ever wrote a column titled "If I Were a Poor White Girl," 10 seconds after I hit the "Submit" button, the blowback from my teams would be off the chain, as your ball players might say. And these women know me. No matter how enlightened and feminist leaning I may be, I'd be skating on mighty thin ice. It may seem a little thing, this particular choice of words "If I were [fill in the blank].." But they come with heavy "I know it all" baggage. But you probably know that by now.