Closing the New Digital Divide: African-Americans Call Upon the FCC to Allow Improved High-Speed Internet Access, by John Meredith

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and other leaders of the African-American community have not had the opportunity to be “up to speed” with the rest of America when it comes to computer technology – the so-called “digital divide.”

As Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), former chairman of the CBC, once said: “Until we eradicate the divide that is growing between those who have access to the Net and those who do not have access, we must press on. We cannot afford to leave behind any of our children in this Information Age. Failure to bridge the gap will relegate our sons and daughters to sit in the backseat of the technology train on the Information Superhighway.”

To bridge the gap, the CBC wants the government to buy computers and computer access for the underprivileged, and wants the federal government to provide cash grants to pay for training in computer skills. CBC members seemingly believe more government spending and more government programs are the only solutions to aid those thought to be missing opportunities readily available to the wealthy.

Not to be outdone by the CBC, the Democratic National Committee wants government and high-tech industry to supply access to low cost computers, provide affordable or free access to the Internet and access to online help for new users to learn the benefits of the Internet.

With all these expensive initiatives under consideration, it is odd that the CBC and other African-American civil rights leaders have failed to weigh in on the proper side of an issue that could yield tremendous benefits for African-Americans and other minorities: the planned merger of the Dish Network and DirecTV into the satellite service company EchoStar, a merger that is now under review by the Federal Communications Commission, an agency of the federal government.

It is especially important that minorities speak out on behalf of this merger, because the FCC could decide to block it, preventing its benefits from reaching the African-American community.

The advantages this merger offers African-Americans are several-fold:

First, the digital divide increasingly is less between those who have computers and those who do not, and more between those who have low-cost high-speed Internet access, and the educational and entertainment options that go with it, and those who do not. The Dish Network/DirecTV merger would for the first time bring high-speed Internet access to million of Americans, particularly in rural America (9 percent of rural Americans are African-American, and 15 percent of all African-Americans live in rural America). This means expanded educational and training options for African-Americans both in schools and in homes.

This benefit is particularly important for young African-Americans because rural African-Americans aged 25-34 had the least educational attainment as measured in both the 1980 and 1990 censuses when compared with urban blacks and both urban and rural whites. Rural schools tend to have the least funding, and at present are less likely to have broadband access than other schools.

Second, because satellite TV systems have limited bandwidth, satellite TV companies can only offer a certain number of TV channels to customers. By merging, companies can double their bandwidth and eliminate duplicative programming, making it possible to carry more educational channels, and, specifically, more channels owned or run by, and/or targeted to, African-Americans.

Third, the merger will put downward pressure on cable TV prices by making satellite TV more competitive to cable. So if the merger goes through, even people who don’t buy satellite TV or Internet access will benefit. This benefit disproportionately helps African-Americans, because on average we have lower incomes.

So-called African-American leaders should be speaking out aggressively in favor of the benefits this merger could make possible instead of finding new ways to increase the size of government and further dependency of our community on handouts. Rick Dovalina, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a major Hispanic group, recently wrote a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, telling him that FCC approval of the merger could help “break down the digital divide that keeps telecommunications technology out of reach of Hispanic Americans.”

LULAC believes that the merger “is the best way to provide access to affordable high speed Internet service… to these disadvantaged Americans.”

Fortunately for African-Americans, what is true in this instance for Hispanic Americans is equally true for us. However, as an African-American, it is quite disturbing that our community is being better represented by Hispanic leaders than by their own.

FCC Chairman Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is an African-American. He supports government policies that lower the technology barrier for Americans of all backgrounds. His agency can make or break this deal. Let’s let him know that we African-Americans support this merger.

(John Meredith is a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and is a board member of two community-based non-profit organizations, a consultant for an educational organization and the national co-chairman of minority outreach for an independent election monitoring organization. He can be reached at [email protected].)

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