In America’s burgeoning digital economy, technology is shaping the ways we live, work, and play. At the same time, demographics are rapidly changing. People of color are becoming even more important to the success of the nation’s workforce. Yet even though people of color account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population, these groups generally end up on the wrong side of the digital divide. Access to, and productive use of technology offers a solution, but that same technology can potentially exacerbate already extant social and economic divides.
Given changing demographics and the inequities some groups face, ensuring America’s continued growth and prosperity requires a more diverse, inclusive workforce. At the same time, we must also ensure the continued availability of the most critical infrastructure of the Information Age – spectrum. Consumer demand for mobile technologies is increasing at an exponential pace. As our dependence on technology and Internet-based applications increases, so too does our need for more spectrum. Creating an inclusive digital economy requires two primary new inputs: (1) sufficient spectrum and infrastructure to support the continued growth and innovation of America’s digital economy; and (2) opportunities for multicultural engagement along the economic chain – from consumers, to entrepreneurs, to owners and licensees of spectrum.
The pervasive structural and opportunity gaps that plague many communities of color are detrimental to the nation’s economic vitality. As noted recently in an article published by Forbes Magazine, based on “reports from big international finance organizations like the International Monetary Fund or the World Economic Forum, increasing inequality is a source of increasing volatility, and wealth inequality means, when the economy hits a volatile patch, people don’t have the resources to withstand those shocks. That, in turn, makes the economy more volatile.” Proactively addressing the socio-economic challenges faced by people of color is not just a moral imperative. Rather, ensuring greater equity for people of color is a national concern because the success of our nation hinges upon the success of these communities.
Moving towards a more diverse digital ecosystem requires addressing the primary causes for under-inclusion in the high-tech sector: intentional discrimination or unintentional meritocracy-based biases; inadequate STEM education; insufficient minority engagement in non-STEM jobs in tech companies; and underrepresentation of women and minorities on corporate boards.
Likewise, the Internet – especially mobile broadband – is the primary driver of today’s innovation economy. The mobile web is becoming a necessity, not a luxury. It is used for everything from general communication, entertainment and social networking, to performing vital services related to improved educational, economic and healthcare outcomes. The innovations resulting from the mobile web are not possible, however, without spectrum. As the invisible infrastructure that powers our online interactions, spectrum is a critical, albeit finite, resource necessary for the continued growth and viability of our digital economy. Without enough of it, neither innovation nor investment can be sustained in this space.
Even though people of color are among the most avid consumers of wireless technologies, very few actually hold spectrum licenses or operate facilities that assist in the provision of wireless services. Full participation in the digital economy means that women and people of color are positioned to become active players in the wireless sector, even beyond traditional roles as consumers and employees. In this light, particularly in view of the FCC’s current competitive bidding rules, relying exclusively on spectrum auctions as the means of acquiring spectrum licensees is a short sighted policy. Spectrum acquisition, as well as building and maintaining a national wireless network, are incredibly capital-intensive endeavors. In most instances, DEs cannot afford to engage in such activities on a broad scale. If the goal is to incentivize greater participation by women and minority owned enterprises, the FCC ought to encourage secondary market transactions.
Creating an ecosystem of opportunity requires focused policies targeted at incentivizing meaningful engagement for people of color in the Information Age. To these ends, policymakers should:
- Adopt legislation targeted at increasing the STEM pipeline, and incentivizing diverse hiring as a national imperative;
- Ensure adequate spectrum in the pipeline by authorizing the reallocation of unused or underused spectrum; and
- Incentivize secondary market transactions by including them in competition analysis, considering them in M&A decisions, and awarding bidding credits to communications companies that sell assets to competitive new entrants.
Achieving these desired outcomes will require a concerted effort on the part of policymakers, industry, and minority and women’s organizations alike. As we become a more diverse nation, sustaining our global competitiveness requires the successful creation and maintenance of a diverse, inclusive digital economy.