Broadband Summit: No Escape From Controversy

Politicians and industry leaders touted their efforts to bring high-speed access to more African Americans, but the issue of net neutrality is still a source of conflict.

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Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Over the hum of laptops and the persistent, attention-demanding chirps of a hundred BlackBerrys, the Minority Media & Telecom Council convened its "Broadband and Social Justice Summit" in Washington, D.C., last week, a gathering of industry and government leaders, to discuss how broadband access and adoption can help bridge the digital divide and provide minority entrepreneurs with unprecedented opportunity in the digital realm.

Despite the gains spurred by activists, telecom workers and policymakers, disparities in broadband access -- particularly along race and class lines -- persist. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than two-thirds of adults have broadband Internet access at home. While African Americans have made considerable gains in the last few years, just 56 percent of blacks have broadband at home.

The conveners of the Minority Media Telecom Council event aim to reverse this trend, looking to industry and a favorable political climate as drivers for the future of broadband access. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was in attendance, as were Reps. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), Calvin Smyre (D-Ga.) and Clifford Stearns (R-Fla.), as well as industry representatives from Comcast and Verizon. The remarks spanned the gamut from congressional reform to the need to infuse a social-justice attitude into the expansion of broadband; many speakers declared that broadband was "the civil rights issue of our time."

Comcast Corp. unveiled an aggressive plan to provide Internet access to low-income households for less than $10 a month. Joseph W. Vaz Jr., Comcast's senior vice president of external affairs and its public-policy counsel, delivered the rough details of the program and also mentioned the formation of a $20 million innovation fund for minority Internet-based businesses. Philip Weiser, senior adviser to the National Economic Council director for technology, innovation and competition policy for the White House, argued that a thriving digital nation was the only way the United States could compete in the global economy. To accomplish this, those in attendance pressed hard for a future bright with minority media ownership and renewed opportunities for those working in the online arena. 

However, the summit was not without controversy. Net neutrality, a huge point of contention for many members of of the black digerati, was often demonized by speakers at the event. Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet remains free and accessible on an equal level to all users, rather than a tiered system in which wealthier users can dominate or restrict the bandwidth available to other users.

James Rucker, co-founder of ColorOfChange, couldn't agree more: "The irony is that net neutrality is the status quo -- they act like this is something new." Rucker, who did not attend the summit but was interviewed for this article, argues that net neutrality is the policy that helps smaller minority-owned outlets compete against corporate titans like Verizon and AT&T.

According to Rucker, the infusion of funds from big business into the pockets of politicians and historic civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League has led them to adopt aggressive stances against net neutrality. Rucker emphatically stated, "It is important to hold political leaders accountable. Bobby Rush has a great record for a lot of issues. When you undermine your constituents, you don't get a pass."

Indeed, the debate over the future of broadband in the United States is a tough one. Although Internet service providers like Comcast are throwing their support behind broader access and are even introducing programs to speed development and subsidize affordability, big business also has a lot to gain from the universal adoption of broadband. The government-backed push would give companies almost 100 percent market penetration and would also provide generous tax breaks to allow businesses to recoup up to 40 percent of their investments. With service providers reaping record profits from Internet services, the question that lingered after the conference was, "Who really has the best interests of the black community at heart?"

Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a frequent contributor to The Root.

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