"Closing the digital divide is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time," Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski told a Rainbow/PUSH annual Telecom Symposium in Washington Friday.
Genachowski said mobile broadband was a key element, particularly in promoting minority adoption, which he pointed out lagged overall adoption. "Mobile devices are now the primary pathway to the Internet for minority Americans according to a couple of Pew surveys," he said.
The chairman pitched the FCC's National Broadband Plan in general and its spectrum reclamation plan in particular as key to meeting the "explosion" in broadband and avoiding hitting "a wall" that could cost the country its lead in "mobile innovation," a cost he said would be measured in economic growth and jobs.
He said that without freeing up broadband, including by getting broadcasters to give up and share spectrum, "the choice consumers will face is between lousy service and sky-high prices for broadband."
The chairman said key barriers to adoption in minority communities were relevance and cost. He said that one problem is that many people don't realize why broadband is important to them. He pointed out that when telemedicine helps save or educate a child, its relevance to the parents jumps to 100%. "There isn't a single silver bullet on the broadband adoption challenge and we need to pursue many different initiatives..."
The chairman said that broadband can help entrepreneurs including small and disadvantaged businesses, but only if the Internet remains open.
Also weighing in at the conference was Rudy Brioche, senior director of external affairs and public policy counsel for Comcast. He said that the goal of helping achieve broadband adoption and deployment is more than just a slogan to his company, and is imbedded in its policies.
On the deployment side, he argued that servicing areas that already have broadband from another provider does not make economic sense.
On digital literacy, Brioche said the cable industry has "really stepped up in this area." Comcast has been very involved in One Economy through the Digital Connectors program, he pointed out, which helps kids learn more about the use of broadband. He agreed relevance is a key reason for non-adopters, and suggested that educating kids can help educate their parents.
He also agreed with the chairman that cost is an issue, but pointed out that cable has provided subsidized service to schools, libraries and subsidized housing, and said that could be expanded with the government's help.