There are many divisions in the US and worldwide today - culturally, financially, and in education to name a few, however, the digital divide is a much-discussed issue that has long been at the forefront of talks within IT and communications industries, as well as US policymakers.
The pandemic revealed the importance of broadband for those who were working remotely, the healthcare industry, and education departments but also emphasized the breaks in broadband connectivity between well-served and underserved regions, particularly in the rural areas of the US and low-income households.
Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Congress is now taking action, granting $65 billion to help to provide broadband for every household as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, additionally, roughly $44 billion directly allotted to individual states through Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and State Digital Equity Capacity Grant programs, what is more, in excess of $20 billion has been allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act and another $20 billion+ being granted under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund according to McKinsey.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC (News - Alert)), which stated in its annual Broadband Deployment Report (released on January 19, 2021), a staggering 21 million Americans are still without broadband connectivity. According to a separate, independent report by the Pew Research Center, a significant portion of the American population on lower incomes is beginning to grow in tech adoption indicated by smartphone ownership and Internet usage, but this increase is small.
The FCC regulates interstate and international communications comprising radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states across the United States, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. territories. As an independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress, the Commission is the federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing America’s communications laws and regulations.
Chaired and led by Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC has stated many a time that its number one priority is that of closing the digital divide. Prior to the pandemic, the FCC had begun to take considerable action to narrow the divide by providing close to $10 billion to be spent over the course of ten years from 2018 to enable broadband connectivity to 5.9 million areas, with an additional $9 million towards bringing 5G wireless to rural communities.
Once the pandemic hit, the FCC allocated an additional $3.2 billion in order to help households afford the cost of having an internet connection and $7.17 billion to supply educational institutions and libraries with computers, broadband, and networking capabilities.
FCC’s Chairwoman, an American attorney, Rosenworcel has a strong belief that connectivity is the future and actively works to promote greater accessibility, affordability, and opportunities in communications services for all, maintaining that having a strong and effective communications market can help to promote economic growth and security, increase opportunities for everyone, and enrich lives.
Jessica Rosenworcel originally served the FCC from mid-2012 to January 2017 and was confirmed by the Senate for an additional term in August 2017. She then went on to serve as acting chair in January 2021 and was subsequently designated permanent chair in October 2021, again confirmed by the Senate in December of last year, making her the second-ever woman to serve in this position, her term will run until 2025.
A graduate in law from the New York University School of Law, Rosenworcel was an associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath (now Faegre Drinker), where she worked in communications law. In 1999, she joined the Wireline Competition Bureau of the FCC, working “to ensure that all Americans have access to robust, affordable broadband and voice services.” In 2003, she started working for then-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (News - Alert). From 2007, under the leadership of Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Rosenworcel served as Senior Communications Counsel to the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and in 2013, Rockefeller led a push to have Rosenworcel named to be the first female chair of the commission when former Chairman Julius Genachowski stepped down, despite this, the position was ultimately given to Tom Wheeler (News - Alert).
During her first term as an FCC commissioner, Rosenworcel voted to protect net neutrality - the principle behind this is that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all Internet communications, including cellular carriers equally, and not charge users different rates based on content, website, platform, application, type of equipment, source address, a destination address, or method of communication. In turn, reclassifying fixed and mobile broadband as a telecommunications service, with providers to be regulated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. On net neutrality, she stated, “We cannot have a two-tiered Internet with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind. We cannot have gatekeepers who tell us what we can and cannot do and where we can and cannot go online, and we do not need blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization schemes that undermine the Internet as we know it.”
In the Summer of 2015, she participated in the modernization and reform of the FCCs Lifeline program to better support 21st Century communications while building on existing reforms to continue strengthening protections against waste, fraud, and abuse. The Lifeline program has helped low-income people pay for phone service; originally landlines, then cellphones, and as of 2016 it also offers the option of Internet connectivity, and provides a subsidy of up to $10.00 a month for Americans below 135% of the poverty line since 1985. The FCC then stated, “the Commission has concluded it is time for a fundamental, comprehensive restructuring of the program to meet today’s most pressing communications needs: access to broadband.”
Named as one of POLITICO's 50 Politicos to Watch, Rosenworcel has been a champion of updating the national education policy with a view to connect the country's schools and libraries with high-speed Internet, including the E-Rate program, established in 1996, which subsidizes broadband connectivity to connect schools and libraries across the US. Rosenworcel clearly defined her objectives for rebooting, reinvigorating, and recharging the nation’s largest education technology program at the Washington Education Technology Policy Summit in April 2013, saying that “Access to adequate broadband capacity in our schools and libraries is not a luxury—it is a necessity for our next generation to be able to compete.”
Coining the term “homework gap”, Rosenworcel has brought attention to the need of students to get online when they are not in school. “When students lack access to online resources at home, teachers shy away from integrating technology into their teaching.” She said in a blog published on Huffington Post.
As part of CNET’s coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access available to every American citizen during the pandemic, she had this to say on erasing the digital divide, “Out of crisis is opportunity," she said. "With this crisis, we've ended the days where we talk about broadband as a 'nice-to-have.' Policymakers everywhere now understand it's a 'need-to-have' for everyone across this country.”
Rosenworcel spoke at this week’s Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit, held in Park City, Utah, June 27-29.
Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.
Edited by Erik Linask