National Urban League: Broadband Internet is Fundamental to Civil Rights

National Urban League: Broadband Internet is Fundamental to Civil Rights


By Kenneth Mallory and Tiffany Bain

The theme of empowerment permeated the “Job Creation and Education: Programmatic Efforts to Increase Broadband Adoption in African American Communities” panel held at the 2012 National Urban League Annual Conference.

“I say without hesitation today, that broadband is the great equalizer,” said Federal Communication Commission (“FCC”) Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who keynoted the panel.

Clyburn, along with Minority Media and Telecommunications Council President David Honig, Comcast Corporation’s Community Investment Vice President and Foundation President Charisse Lillie, National Urban League Research and Policy Director Madura Wijewardena, and AT&T Legislative Affairs Chief Cleo Washington, spoke of the myriad ways that broadband is transforming society and providing educational and economic empowerment for Black Americans.

The panelists also discussed how lack of access can hold communities back.

“It is imperative that we get everyone connected,” Clyburn said. “Digital exclusion will further prevent our brothers and sisters, especially those in challenged communities, from truly participating in the very basic facets of today’s society.”

The panelists underscored that Internet was essential to living a meaningful life in the 21st century. Honig illustrated four main advantages of adopting broadband – having greater access to healthcare (through tele-health technologies), education, job opportunities, and civic engagement.

A central topic among the panelists was how to harness national policy efforts to increase broadband adoption.

Clyburn said that affordability was a primary barrier to greater adoption, and spoke of the FCC’s recent action to reform its Universal Service Fund to subsidize broadband service for low income Americans.

“People should not have to choose between feeding their families and paying for the transformational benefits of broadband,” she said.

The affordability issue is critical to minority broadband adoption because of the 20:1 racial wealth gap, according to Honig.  He called on local Urban League chapters to campaign against high wireless and digital goods taxation, calling them “inherently regressive, at rates comparable to ‘sin’ taxes although broadband today is not a sin, it is a necessity for first class citizenship.”

The panelists also discussed the greater need for the FCC to assign more spectrum – the infrastructure and “fuel” for several broadband technologies – to commercial wireless use to respond to the exponential growth of consumer demand for wireless services.
Lillie mentioned some of Comcast’s initiatives to increase broadband adoption, including its Internet Essentials program, which provides low cost Internet service to families of children on the school-lunch program.

“At Comcast we are concerned about the digital divide, and that fact that if children don’t have access to the Internet, they are going to start out considerably behind and can’t catch up,” said Lillie.

Washington spoke of initiatives that AT&T was engaged in to help close the digital divide, including its Aspire program, which supports youth learning in technology.
While several panelists said that minority communities lagged behind White Americans in adopting broadband access at home, data has shown that people of color over-index in using mobile wireless service, something that Honig said could potentially make African Americans the nation’s leaders in using the technology for advancement.

Washington echoed sentiments of the panelists that home broadband adoption was critical, but also said that the surge in wireless mobile use by minorities called for greater development of wireless technologies.

Washington said there is was a “need to continue to focus investment on wireless technologies, because the reality is that there’s a disproportionate number of African Americans and Hispanics that use wireless technology to access the Internet,” he remarked.

“If we know that is the case we have to continue not only to build out wireline networks that provide broadband in the home but wireless networks also.”

The panel was moderated by Editor-in-Chief Kristal High.