If you worry that people of color aren't reaping the full benefits of the digital age, a new study by the Pew Foundation brings the happy tidings that wireless technology is helping minority Americans close the broadband gap.
Unfortunately, new rules under consideration at the Federal Communications Commission threaten to reverse the trend by compromising wireless service and driving up the cost of the smart phones that are making it happen. What are they thinking?
First, the good news. In a report on "Mobile Access 2010" the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that "minority Americans lead the way when it comes to mobile access." It notes that nearly two-thirds of African-Americans and Latinos use wireless devices to connect to the Internet. They also are more likely to own a cell phone than white Americans and use a wider array of their phones' capabilities.
For example, almost half of blacks and English-speaking Hispanics use their phone to reach the Internet, compared to only one-third of whites who go online with their phone. Minorities also are far more likely to send e-mail or watch videos with their cell phone.
The minority cell phone advantage offers a sharp contrast with the digital divide in wireline home broadband as white Americans have been quicker to embrace the Internet by buying a home computer and subscribing to landline broadband services. But many minorities are choosing a different route to the broadband world through a robust wireless marketplace that is delivering broadband access in your pocket thanks to innovative and affordable devices such as the iPhone and various Droid handsets.
But, apparently blind to the implications for expanded connectivity among minorities, the FCC seems determined to disrupt mobile broadband by weighing it down with so-called Net neutrality rules that would raise network operators' cost and could compromise service quality by making it harder for network operators to address growing problems with online congestion.
That would be a double negative to mobile wireless subscribers because higher costs for providers will ultimately mean higher costs for consumers, and limits on traffic management will mean more dropped calls and slower Internet connectivity. That means mobile subscribers of every community would get less benefit for their dollar.
What's more, possible rules to limit cooperation between network providers and handset manufacturers would make it more risky to innovate and would likely boost the cost of the very smart phones that are driving mobile broadband. Barring these partnerships means that every innovator must bear all the costs and risks on their own, a calculus that drives businesses to play it safe with proven models instead of seeking out breakthroughs.
In stunning contradiction to President Barack Obama's pledge to connect every American to broadband Internet service as well as the broadband adoption goals of the FCC's own National Broadband Plan, the proposed Net neutrality regulations also would stymie efforts to close the digital divide in home broadband adoption. A study by economist Robert Shapiro, undersecretary of commerce for President Bill Clinton, shows that Net neutrality rules that restrict pricing options would extend the digital divide in home broadband into the next decade. By contrast, Shapiro reports that the current policy combined with pricing flexibility by operators could enable the country to reach the president's universal adoption goal by 2018 or 2019.
The FCC has a choice. It can nurture minorities' enthusiastic embrace of wireless broadband as a way to enjoy the Internet's benefits, or it can impose a heavy-handed regulatory regime that drives up the cost of every form of broadband and make it harder for late adopters to join the digital revolution. For minorities, mobile communications options are helping close the divide. The FCC shouldn't fix what ain't broke.
Dr. Frederick S. Humphries is a current regents professor at Florida A&M University as well as FAMU's former president. Humphries is also the former president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO).