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Los Angeles: Ground Zero for Closing the Digital Divide

By Martha Escutia

The Los Angeles Region is an amazing epicenter of talent, artistry and innovation.  But it also is ground zero for closing the Digital Divide.  Fortunately, we have visionary leaders who are behind a triad of opportunities that will result in a huge win for digital equity.

Right now, almost a quarter of Los Angeles residents are stuck on the wrong side of the Digital Divide—not able to fully contribute to our creative vibrancy and economic vitality.  According to a California Emerging Technology Fund Field Poll, the Los Angeles Region lags behind the state average for connected residents at home, with 76 percent of households online and 10 percent having only a smart phone to access the Internet.  While smart phones are marvelous technologies for mobile access, they are insufficient for students to do their homework, inadequate to help adults acquire workforce skills, and hard to use by people with certain physical disabilities.  Further, while the Los Angeles Region is 27 percent of the state’s population, 33 percent of California’s low-income people and students on free-or-reduced lunch reside here. 

All of this means that there is a concentration of poverty, which must be tackled with all available strategies and tools—including affordable high-speed Internet service.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and the California Legislature must act now to ensure all residents get connected to “broadband,” as high-speed Internet is called, so that they can participate in the Digital World.  This is a 21st-century civil right.

Los Angeles leaders have taken a major role in fighting for digital equity.  The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution introduced by President Herb Wesson and signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, calling upon the FCC to adopt an affordable Internet access rate called “Lifeline” and to encourage companies to partner with community organizations, schools, and libraries as “trusted messengers” to get low-income households online.  The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors under the leadership of Chair Hilda Solis unanimously approved a similar position, followed by a unanimous vote by the Los Angeles Unified School Board at the urging of President Steve Zimmer.  Our State Legislators, led by Senate Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker–elect Anthony Rendon, both native Angelenos, have headed up a delegation of officials to underscore the need for all residents—including and especially the most disadvantaged—to be brought into the Digital Age.  Los Angeles and California are speaking historically with a united voice and it is time for the FCC to act—the first element in the triad of opportunities.

Until the FCC approves and makes operational an affordable broadband Lifeline program, the CPUC must ensure that affordable broadband is a public benefit secured out of the pending application by Charter Communications to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks—the second element of the triad. This corporate consolidation will result in the second largest broadband provider in the country; the CPUC must require Charter to step up to contribute to digital equity, as AT&T, Comcast and Frontier have done already.

Finally, major legislation has been introduced in Sacramento called the Internet For All Now Act of 2016, which will provide essential policy and resources to finish closing the Digital Divide in our Golden State.  This Act prominently plants the flag for California as a global leader in digital equity.  Our Los Angeles State Legislators leaders hold the key to passing this legislation—the third element in the triad. 

This is the triad for digital equity being constructed in the Los Angeles Region.  The FCC, CPUC, and California Legislature have the power in their hands to ensure all residents get online now to (1) approve Broadband Lifeline, (2) secure a significant public benefit from Charter, and (3) pass the Internet for All Now Act.  We must ensure that everyone has the 21st -century civil right to Internet access—because access delayed is access denied.

Martha Escutia represented Los Angeles County in the California State Senate from 1998 until 2006 and served in the California State Assembly from 1992 until 1998; she was chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications and was the first woman chair of the California Legislative Latino Caucus. Currently, she is vice president of government relations at University of Southern California.

 

Cost, Relevance, Digital Literacy: Ensuring a Workable Lifeline Broadband Program

By Sunne Wright McPeak

March 2016 is an exciting month for those of us who have worked long and hard to convince the FCC that the Lifeline program to help low-income Americans with vital communications should be extended to broadband.  For many of us, the reasons for this extension are obvious.  Internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.  It’s a 21st Century Civil Right—access delayed is access denied. 

We applaud the proposal released by FCC Chair Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to modernize the FCC’s Lifeline program for the broadband age.  The proposal is focused on three decisions: 

  • Speed:  Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn explain their proposal sets minimum service standards for voice and broadband.
  • Management: They write their intention is to “streamline program rules and eliminate outdated or unnecessary regulations to reduce administrative burdens and make it easier for broadband providers to participate,” so that telecoms will want to participate and Lifeline consumers will have more competitive options.
  • Eligibility Verification: They aim to establish an independent National Eligibility Verifier to take the onus off companies and provide a check against waste, fraud and abuse. 

These are all excellent provisions, which should be in the final ruling.  But the proposal is vague on a number of points that must be addressed before the FCC votes on March 31.  

  1. Cost:  Wheeler and Clyburn are well aware that there is a broadband affordability gap when they write: “Internet access has become a pre-requisite for full participation in our economy and our society, but nearly one in five Americans is still not benefitting from the opportunities made possible by the most powerful and pervasive platform in history.”  Yet there is no mention in their statement of what an affordable rate should be or whether than rate should include a router and an installation.  The Californian Emerging Technology Fund increasingly has found that a $9.25 subsidy only goes so far when companies charge $5 per month for a router and $50 for installation.  The FCC must compel companies participating in Lifeline to include a router and free installation as part of its offer to eligible consumers.  I am not arguing that Lifeline Broadband should be free; it just needs to be affordable for people with low incomes.
  2. Relevance: Wheeler and Clyburn also make no mention of whether current Lifeline participants will have to choose between a subsidy for home broadband or landline telephone service.  For many households, telephones are still a priority.  Research shows that if forced to choose, many will choose telephone over Internet service.
  3. Digital Literacy:  Internet access remains high among low-income populations because of language and cultural barriers.  Broadband  companies are not in the business of doing this kind of outreach; whereas “trusted messengers”—schools, libraries and community-based organizations—have the proven expertise.   We urge the FCC to capitalize an independent fund to provide grants to these trusted messengers for outreach, digital literacy training and sign-up assistance for Internet service, especially in poor communities where the percentage of unconnected is acutely high.  The corporate conglomerates can afford such a fund and the FCC can demand this necessary public benefit.

It is also important that the vote for Lifeline Broadband be bipartisan.  This is a policy decision that need not cut across party lines, because the cost of Lifeline Broadband will be subsumed by greater economic inclusion, independence and success for low-income Americans.

These recommendations are not made lightly.  They come out of working for years and within broad coalitions to narrow the Digital Divide in California from 45% in 2008 to 21% in 2015.  They come out an understanding that the three primary barriers to broadband adoption are Cost, Relevance and Digital Literacy.  If the FCC and Obama Administration want to get all Americans connected, then they must seize this opportunity to design and adopt a workable Broadband Lifeline program.

Sunne Wright McPeak is CEO and President of the California Emerging Technology Fund.

34 Million Americans Remain Without Affordable Internet

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Meet AnaMaria Ruiz and Carolina Hernandez. AnaMaria and Carolina work with Latino and non-English speaking parents, families and communities on education, literacy, and workforce preparedness. Access to affordable Internet is a critical part of this work.

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Lack of Technology for College Students Contributes to Drop Out Rate

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Thomas Onwiler is the Chief Technology Officer for Butte College (a California community college). He oversees and manages all of the technology on campus.  He works with three main groups, students being the primary group.  He also works with the faculty who use technology to teach classes, and administrators who use technology to track the student information and their work, as well as important college information.

In the fall if 2014 he started tracking students who did not have access to computers or the Internet.  Out of the 13,000 students 227-250 students were identified who did not have a computer and/or Internet at home. 

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The Homework Gap is REAL

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Internet access is something we often take for granted, but for many American families, it’s a significant financial burden. 

Leticia is a hard working-woman who runs a small business from her home. She lives with her husband and daughter, who is in high school. When her husband lost his job, Leticia’s family had to make tough budget decisions and could no longer afford internet. 

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Summary of the CETF/Field Research Poll About the Digital Divide, June 2015

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The latest polls conducted by the Field Research Corporation on behalf of California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) on the Digital Divide have revealed that 79% of California households have a broadband connection at home while the other 21% doesn’t have any connection to broadband. 

 

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FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn Addresses New America Foundation on Affordable Internet

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On June 22, Mignon L. Clyburn, Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), addressed the New America Foundation about affordable broadband. She started out by talking about the Open Internet Order that had recently gone into effect. She then segued into how “wireless broadband should never be priced so high that it becomes a luxury reserved only for the privileged."

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America Say NO to 20th Century Broadband for the Poor, Tell AT&T High-Speed Internet for All Now!

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In case you haven't heard, AT&T has submitted a regulatory filing to acquire DirecTV. AT&T is expected to abide by the FCC's net neutrality rules. Consumer advocates have been pushing for AT&T to agree to sell a standalone Internet plan. 

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Rebooting Lifeline for the Internet Age

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That’s what this LA Times article describes as the goal of FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler’s move to update Lifeline now. Chairman Wheeler is focused on developing meaningful Lifeline discounts for today’s communications, the Internet and phone service. The Washington Post states that this is the first time a proposal of this type has been approached in the 30 year history of the program!

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Lifeline History 101

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Lifeline is a program established in 1985 during the Reagan administration to ensure that there was an affordable option for the poor to have telephone service, so the choice was not between medicine and phone service or eating and phone service. Lifeline is a subsidy that every person who pays a phone bill supports. Lifeline was designed around the ‘wireline’ phones. The program was available to everyone that met eligibility standards.

Today, the number of wireline phones is approaching extinction according to Time Magazine. Approximately 41% of American homes have only a wireless (cell) phone. Add to that the rapid adoption of the Internet, and a Lifeline discount for voice service is rendered useless.

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