Brief session description:
Thursday, July 14, 2016 – This panel focused on emerging best practices to expand digital inclusion and broadband access and adoption to areas of the country that have been historically underserved. This includes rural, remote, and indigenous communities, people with accessibility challenges, low-income populations, and people with disabilities and special needs. It discussed extending universal, affordable connectivity via the shared expertise, experiences, and creativity of the technology, technical, and policy communities. Ensuring affordability is a key shared challenge across markets. The panel explored this and the divergent challenges in bringing broadband to underserved populations. You can view video highlights on this page or watch the full archived session here.
Details of the session:
The session was moderated by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Internet, Science and Technology Project. Panelists included:
- Namema Amendi, legal and policy fellow, Microsoft
- Nonabah Lane, representing rural, remote and indigenous communities
- Jeff Blum, senior vice president and deputy general counsel, Dish Network
- Madura Wijewardena, executive director, global public policy, Comcast Corporation
- Olga Madruga Forti, chief of the global strategies and negotiation division, FCC
Panelists discussed the harsh realities for those who are unable to connect to the Internet. They pointed out how rapid improvements in technology are providing life-changing advantages for 3.5 billion people who are connected.
But these improvements are widening the digital divide, leaving behind the more than 4.5 billion people globally who are without connectivity. They are unable to easily seek information to improve their health and their communities, unable to do homework, unable to complete government documents or even apply for jobs.
Nonabah Lane, a Native American who has worked as a teacher at a tribal college, detailed the struggles for those living in Native American communities that are not connected.
“About a third of all people who live on the reservation are on the poverty line,” Lane said. “These people are making decisions, and the last thing on the list of things to do is purchasing an Internet connection.”
Lane said tribal leaders often have Internet access but refuse to make it widely available to the rest of people in a community. Inhabitants of reservations are also often unable to connect to the superb connections of any U.S. government buildings located near reservations because they are secure facilities.
Lane said hearing the conversations at IGF-USA and seeing how most Americans take access for granted is incredibly shocking because she and her father—also an educator—have often toiled with their students to complete their work.
“Being invited to this forum made me realize, ‘Wow, in my own community, I can’t even get connection like this,’” Lane said. “There were days were we just went without Internet. It’s actually sad.”
Satellite broadband is one answer for those in rural and remote locations
Jeff Blum, senior vice president for Dish Network, told Lane he is disappointed that “it’s 2016 and we can’t get kids access to do their homework.”
He said the main reason major Internet service providers refuse to expand resources to create connectivity in rural areas because it isn’t cost-effective. He said satellite broadband, one of the products Dish promotes, is a potent way to widen the possibilities for Internet access in remote areas. He reported that Dish is working on sending launching a second satellite into Earth orbit with the capability to provide access to the entire United States.
Blum said governmental policies impact funding for projects like this. He added that sparsely populated communities should be considered to be on the same playing field as urban ones, saying the government should look at this issue with a balanced scope. A letter recently sent to 24 U.S. senators addressed this issue.
“We know satellite broadband is a cost-effective way to provide service to rural communities,” Blum said. “We think those polices should be technology neutral. We know the technology is there and with a partnership with the government, we can help bridge this divide.”
Access for rural, underprivileged urban communities
Madura Wijewardena, director of research and policy for Comcast, said there is a direct correlation between being a rural area inhabitant and Internet illiteracy. He said offering affordable access to the Internet to the unconnected is fairly useless if those people don’t know how to navigate it. He spoke of a program that offered personal and cyberspace instruction to children who qualify for free lunch at school, noting that it increased connection to and adoption of the Internet by 10 percent.
“We wanted to identify the probem and design a solution, not just a press release,” Wijewardena said. “We wanted to make sure that we learned and that we changed as we learned and look at this long term.”
People in rural communities are not the only ones in the U.S. who have a difficult time accessing the Internet. A segment of the underprivileged in urban communities share in this problem. Namema Amendi, legal and policy fellow at Microsoft, outlined some of the innovative ways her company is helping.
Microsoft has engaged in dozens of projects globally, including in Scotland, Morocco and the Philippines. Amendi shared statistics regarding the ways in which a long-range WiFi system—TV Wide Space— helped kids connect to the Internet to do work and provided Microsoft Office 365 to 18 secondary schools in Virginia.
“We are a productivity company and our job is to empower you to use all the tools we have available,” Amendi said. “Not only do we provide Internet access to the school, but now kids can go home and have it there, as well.”
Disabilities often serve as a barrier
People with disabilities are often left behind as well when it comes Internet use, for instance, because they are unable to see a screen because they are blind or they can’t hear a video because they are deaf.
Olga Madruga Forti, chief of global strategy and international negotiation at the United States’ Federal Communications Commission, said the government is holding agencies accountable for up to $100,000 in fines if they do not offer disability options, such as closed captioning and narration, in their services.
“It goes without saying that access to the Internet is permeated throughout all of our daily lives,” Forti said.
“But we see it both ways. Not only does a disabled person benefit from the Internet, they need to be on it.”
– By Emmanuel Morgan
The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2016 included the following Elon University School of Communications students, staff and faculty:
Bryan Anderson, Janna Anderson, Bryan Baker, Elizabeth Bilka, Ashley Bohle, Courtney Campbell, Colin Donohue, Melissa Douglas, Mackenzie Dunn, Maya Eaglin, Christina Elias, Rachel Ellis, Caroline Hartshorn, Paul LeBlanc, Emmanuel Morgan, Joey Nappa, Diego Pineda Davila, Alyssa Potter, Kailey Tracy, Andrew Steinitz, Anna Zwingelberg