Celebrate Mediocrity?

A colleague sent me a PR Newswire release about a new study funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the auspices of a grant to the Ready to Learn Partnership (RTLP), which painted an upbeat picture on the state of technology adoption by lower income households. The headline read:

“New Study Funded by U.S. Department of Education Shows Digital Divide Is No Longer as Prevalent”

And the body of the release stated:

“This new research suggests that given the proliferation of media across the socioeconomic spectrum, although significant differences do exist by income level, a stark digital divide no longer captures the relationship between income and technology ownership and that technology is integrated into children’s lives, regardless of their families’ income.”

So, the positive news is that”significant” differences do exist by income level but they are no longer “stark.” How comforting.

The actual report had this to say in the summary section:

“Regardless of how one assesses the current state, it is clear that, given the proliferation and increased affordability of media technologies,
the metaphor of the “digital divide” no longer adequately characterizes the complex relationship between income and ownership of media technology. The current state is perhaps best described as a “digital continuum.”

I took a look at the supporting stats in the study and it showed clearly that in households earning $75,000 per year, 97% have a computer in contrast to 37% in households earning less than $25,000 per year. That’s a 60% spread.

The study also showed that household internet access connection differed by type (dial-up vs broadband).

For those of us tracking broadband deployment, we can easily extrapolate these numbers to see that overall, 16% of lower income (<$25k/annum) households have broadband access in contrast to 77% in higher income (>%75k/annum) households. That’s a 61% spread.

So maybe that’s not “stark.” But it certainly seems severe and for children living on the wrong side of that 60% or 61% spread, it certainly seems unfair.

But mostly it’s tragic because it’s totally unnecessary. The technology, capital, talent and experience necessary to help make that gap a historical footnote is poised and ready to act — the only missing ingredient is a tiny bit of cooperation from our government.


Stitching up the Net and The Seattle Times

On October 14, Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle; chair, Senate Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee; member, K-20 Education Network Board; Olympia) wrote a Letter to the Editor in the Seattle Times to comment on the Seattle Times Column written by M2Z’s CEO, John Muleta. The text to Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles’ Letter to the Editor is below …

A barrier to free flow

John Muleta identifies a real problem in “FCC fiddles while nation’s broadband falls behind” [guest commentary, Oct. 3]. As a country — and as a state — we cannot remain competitive without widespread access to broadband. Americans have every reason to be concerned about current service levels — especially to those Americans living in rural and low-income areas.

Muleta is correct that the ultimate determinations for increasing access to broadband is made by the FCC, but states can nudge the agency along by illustrating the scope of the problem.

This year, lawmakers included funding in the state budget to conduct a study to collect and interpret statistically reliable geographic, demographic and telecommunications information to identify any broadband-deployment disparities in the state.

In addition, the study will produce a profile of households and businesses, determining factors relating to those with no available broadband access, those with access but who haven’t purchased an option, and the purposes for which broadband is used by those who have access.

There is no question that the digital divide is a barrier to education and economic opportunities. We simply can’t afford such a divide, and lawmakers — both state and federal — must continue to make it harder for the FCC to sit idly by and allow this gap to persist.

— Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle; chair, Senate Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee; member, K-20 Education Network Board; Olympia

“Free” is good public policy

In the communications field, rarely does an idea come along with such obvious and compelling public interest benefits that when it finally does, it creates dissonance among decision makers that must act on it. M2Z is one such idea.

“It seems too good to be true. How in the world could anyone be against it?” are usually the first comments we hear when we explain the benefits of M2Z Networks to the public.

What is M2Z Networks?

Nearly 18 months ago, M2Z – a Silicon Valley company – requested permission from the FCC to blanket the US with a FREE, family-friendly wireless broadband service. The basic idea is to bring consumer-friendly wireless broadband connectivity to everyone – especially the 100+ million American adults and their children lacking broadband or any internet access today.

The Vision

The vision is simple. In the same way that advertising-supported, free, over-the-air television became ubiquitous (98% coverage) in the American household, M2Z wants to replicate this successful model for broadband. In the digital age, internet connectivity is a key factor of production with a tremendous impact on economic competitiveness. By making broadband internet access both ubiquitous and free, the ripple effect into other segments of the economy would be profoundly positive.

Public Policy Implications

For the FCC, the government agency which must rule on M2Z’s application, the public policy benefits of a service such as the one proposed by M2Z are not only direct and immediate but they are mandated under Section I (one) of the Communications Act, which requires the FCC to make communication services available to the public “without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

With the US rapidly falling behind other countries in broadband deployment, existing facilities are clearly inadequate and it’s impossible to argue that “free” is not a reasonable charge. In the same way that free access to Interstate highways spurred commerce in the last century, “free” for broadband is not only a pricing mechanism, but is good public policy to spur future commerce.