The Challenges of Closing the Digital Divide

Mignon Clyburn, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, which is working to bring broadband to low-income individuals and rural areas.

WASHINGTON — United States history is marked by modernization efforts aimed at leaving no one behind. In the 1930s, it was lighting up farmsteads with electricity. In the 1950s, it was paving highways to every town. Today, the federal government is trying to bring broadband, which it considers a utility, to an estimated 33 percent of residents who don’t have the service.

At the Federal Communications Commission, Mignon L. Clyburn, a Democratic member, has supported regulations to connect those remaining Americans. The agency recently approved broadband subsidies for low-income families. The F.C.C. also converted rural phone service grants to companies willing to bring broadband to remote areas.

We sat with Ms. Clyburn, a former public utilities commissioner from South Carolina, to discuss the challenges of closing the digital divide.

Q: What do we know about the people who aren’t able to obtain access to or afford broadband?

A: Tens of millions of people are caught in the divide, and what we know is many are low-income and in rural areas. In total, 10 percent of Americans, or 34 million people, lack access to what we define as high-speed internet. Many more do not adopt broadband for many reasons — especially cost — and the adoption problem particularly affects low-income people.

Many people who may not have broadband lines into their home get online through their phones. Perhaps we should view smartphone access as an imperfect substitute?

They are complements but not substitutes because there are certain things that can’t be done on smartphones. Look, if we have seen 45 states with frameworks where one in five public assistance programs are online, you need full access to the internet. The opportunity of a fixed broadband connection is so much greater, by way of speeds, the ability to fill out all forms and transfer files.

This also affects low-income consumers in particular with 7.8 million low-income consumers who only have access through their mobile device. There are limitations with what you can do on your smartphone, and 48 percent lose coverage over the course of their contract because they can’t afford it at some point. So they are getting counted for having broadband on their phones but they don’t have continual coverage.

Why aren’t people adopting internet when it is available to them? Is it just cost? I’ve seen surveys citing skepticism over the relevance of the internet.

What is the definition of relevance? And relative to what? I think someone who doesn’t adopt may not admit to you that they have some type of challenge in digital literacy. They may say they don’t need it when the real answer may be that they aren’t comfortable with a keyboard or mouse.

Where do you see the biggest problems?

I see the biggest challenges in persistent poverty areas, where investment hasn’t organically flowed. So when investment doesn’t flow, infrastructure isn’t there. Then the hardware is not there, and then digital education isn’t there. It’s compounding.

There isn’t incentive for carriers to go into low-income areas where they may not make as much money. How do you balance their business concerns with your public interest concerns?

Urban areas are more difficult from where I sit. In rural areas, people get the business issues and we have things like the Connect America Fund so money can flow to rural areas that cost more to serve.

When you have dense urban areas, where on paper things seem to be working as far as the infrastructure being there, it’s more difficult to solve the problems.

Let’s take D.C. Across the street from my home is what people would call a public housing complex. Their world is completely different from mine. We are on the same block. And I guarantee you there is an affordability component that will prevent many of them from regular connectivity. Too many of us don’t have the sensitivity of that and say things like “these people can go to the library to get online.”

What is your opinion of cities trying to create their own municipal broadband networks? You are being sued by internet service providers for your rules that support municipal broadband.

We are waiting for a decision from courts but I won’t tiptoe in saying I have been supportive of local communities. If they have reached out to their logical incumbent I.S.P. and if they aren’t getting what they need from those incumbents and they have the means to build their own infrastructure, I will be supportive of them.

I’ve been interested in how you’ve used mergers to help bridge the divide. With Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable, the F.C.C. required the company to create a low-income service and to extend its footprint to two million more homes.

Every merger should push forward the goals and aspirations of connectivity. We should all want companies and regulators to maximize that goal. I am very pleased by some of the commitments we’ve gotten from companies who also see benefits of offering a wider array of price points and service.

They want customers that would help their bottom lines. We knew it would be the only way for us to truly connect to communities, through public-private partnerships.

What’s the best example of how broadband access improves lives?

In a pilot project in Ruleville, Mississippi, 100 diabetics used broadband to regularly connect with doctors online. In the first year, none of those patients had hospital visits. It saved $339,000 in Medicaid spending.

Google Fiber and new broadband start-ups are going into new cities with a lot of excitement. But they often aren’t going to low-income neighborhoods. How does this affect the digital divide?

I assume those companies making those investments will want to grow and will reach customers they aren’t reaching at the start.

I don’t worry that much about them because the community will demand the service.

That’s putting a lot of trust in carriers to do the right thing. Their business models clash with your objectives. If those who are left behind can’t afford service, how does this help Google or Comcast’s business?

I don’t think there is any business that wants to be perceived as not being a good partner with society.

It took a call from you, a federal regulator, to help a high school in Mississippi to get better broadband service. That shows people don’t have the power to get better broadband on their own.

Is it a perfect system? Heck no. It may have taken that interaction from me, but it will get done. And that is my job. And that is the beauty of having local, state and federal regulators. Yes, it may take some years to get broadband rolled out to all cities, but it’s going to get done.

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