Elon University

Breakout Panel Session – Digital Divide Solutions: Promoting a More Inclusive Internet

IGF USA LogoBrief session description:

Monday, July 24, 2017 –  This panel took place during the morning session of IGF-USA 2017 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Read the print story and see video highlights on this page. You can view the full, archived video of this panel session here.

The Internet is hailed as an enabler of economic liberty for all, but many groups in society are still offline or have limited access. Cultural, educational and employment opportunities are tied inexorably to Internet access and, as economic activity on the Internet keeps compounding, the GDP per capita is massively impacted by the number of connected individuals. How can access be expanded to underserved areas and underrepresented communities? Points include improving Internet infrastructure availability and affordability, addressing relevance and readiness, and connecting underserved communities.

Details of the session:

The session was moderated by Brandie Nonnecke, a manager at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute at the University of California-Berkeley. Panelists included:

  • Maya Wiley, senior vice president for social justice and professor of urban policy and management at the New School, chair of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board and a leader of New York City’s committment to expanding affordable broadband access
  • Chris Rezendes, founder of INEX Advisors and Impact Labs and IoT Capital Partners, with 24 years’ experience in real-time, mission-critical, embedded and wireless markets as an analyst, advisor, general manager, entrepreneur and investor
  • Jane Coffin, director of development strategy at the Internet Society, focusing on coordination of collaborative strategies for expanding Internet infrastructure, access, and related capacities in emerging economies
  • Vanu Bose, president and CEO of Vanu Inc., commissioner to the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, as a member of the Army Science Board, and as a member of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program Industry Advisory Board

Experts in the field of Internet inclusivity discussed various models of bringing connectivity to more populations across the globe, the best ways to move the issue forward, and possible roadblocks that may lie ahead.

One of those obstacles? More than four billion people still do not have access to the Internet, according to panel moderator Brandie Nonnecke, the research and development manager at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute.

“How to, at the minimum, identify exactly where these populations are is a difficult task,” Nonnecke said. “And then even once we connect them, insuring that that connection is tethered to opportunity is yet another challenge on top of that.”

Nonnecke asked the panelists to offer their insight into what an inclusive Internet might look like in the year 2050. Vanu Bose, CEO of Vanu Inc., predicted everyone will have the ability to get online, including, “physical access, ability to use the content and to be able to afford it. We are pretty far away from all three of those things.”

Maya Wiley, senior vice president for social justice at the New School, said close attention needs to be paid to the populations that are being left out of the conversation and, thus, unable to benefit from the Internet. In her words, innovation should be at the center of the Internet’s future.

“As we are watching, not just innovation economy but the ability of technology to start to solve social problems, it really should be the case that the technology is actually supporting traditionally excluded communities from actually being able to be innovators themselves, not simply the recipients of innovation,” Wiley said.

Inclusive Internet Panel Group PhotoAn important component of the discussion is that worldwide access affects pockets of almost every nation. But it is not the job of American innovators to go into other countries and tell leaders what they need—rather, they should be asked what would best serve their communities.

“We shouldn’t decide what people’s access looks like,” said Jane Coffin, director of development strategy at the Internet Society. “They should be able to decide for themselves.”

Chris Rezendes, founder of IOT Impact Labs, agreed that it’s best to tailor methods of connectivity to the community being served.

“If you’ve already got any kind of power, if you’ve got any kind of connectivity, what we are trying to espouse here is this idea that you don’t need 5G, you don’t need, necessarily, fiber to the curb,” he said. “What you need is to go into these communities and understand who these people are, what they’re proud of in their history, and where they want to go and help them exploit that with resilience.”

But Internet connectivity not only affects rural areas globally, but also urban hubs like New York. Wiley said that both landscapes need to be understood in order to move forward successfully.

“We are still politically and pragmatically thinking of them as two competing spheres, so either rural is going to win or urban is going to win and that’s just failing frame work. But that is the way it works politically,” Wiley said.

Although Bose said he believes the reality of international connectivity is still far in the future, the panel ended on a positive note.

“Being more collaborative is empowering and benefits everybody who is working toward making the Internet inclusive,” Nonnecke said.

– By Alexandra Schonfeld

Click here to return to IGF-USA 2017 homepage.

The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2017 included the following Elon University School of Communications students, staff and faculty:

Janna Anderson, Bryan Baker, Camille Behnke, Liam Collins, Diego Pineda Davila, Colin Donohue, Maya Eaglin, Christina Elias, Meagan Gitelman, Alex Hager, Tommy Kopetskie, Deirdre Kronschnabel, Jared Mayerson, Emmanuel Morgan, Grace Morris, Jackie Pascale, Mariah Posey, Alexandra Roat, Ginna Royalty, Alexandra Schonfeld, Jamie Snover, Erik Webb, Brooke Wivagg