Why America Needs Broadband Reform

broadband-tv-phone package prices

We all know the price for internet access in the United States is getting out of control.  But this issue really came close to home a couple of months ago when a good friend of mine and longtime neighbor was laid off from her job.  She told me that in order for her to cut down on expenses, one of the first things she did was cancel her internet and cable TV package with her provider.

I can understand getting rid of cable TV, which mostly shows useless programming these days, but the internet seemed like an ironic decision.  She can’t afford to have internet access anymore because she lost her job; however, she needs internet access to search for her next job.  Of course, being a good friend, I offered to let her use my computer if she needed it.

However, even I wonder how much longer I will be able to afford my combo package.  I have a internet and land line phone package that costs roughly US$115 a month.  I considered dropping the phone and just getting an internet subscription recently.  When I contacted my provider, I was told it would cost US$39 just for the internet, but that doesn’t include all the other taxes and “hidden fees”, which jumps the price up to near US$90 a month.  So I ended up keeping my phone and internet package.

My friend is a single mother with two small children.  When she was working, she was barely making above minimum wage.  Not having internet access in her home is a burden for her in other ways too.  She has a desktop computer, so she doesn’t have the luxury of taking a portable computer to the local Starbucks or library to use the free WiFi.

She could use the computers for free at the library, but that comes with problems sometimes.  There is always a line of people waiting to use the computers.  Users are only given 30 minutes and can extend their time by another 30 minutes if there isn’t another person waiting, which is not very often.  Sometimes there is no guarantee that you will even get to use a computer before the library closes.

Even if you do get a computer, 30 minutes to do a job search is not enough time.  Most of the time, the connection speed is slow.  There are only four computers in the adult area for use, and two of them are either broken or down because of a virus most of the time.  There is no IT support guy in the library to fix the problem, and the staff librarians don’t know what to do with broken computers.

Luckily, there are programs like Technology Goes Home and other government subsidized programs she may qualify for, but even this is just a small band aid on a gushing wound.

My friend is like millions of other Americans who are being impacted by a new kind of digital divide.

I did a little research to see how other countries line up with the United States regarding cost and speed, and let me tell you, if more Americans knew what people in other countries pay for their internet service, there would be riots in the streets.

countries with high-speed broadband

As you can see in the top images, South Korea leads the world in both low cost and high broadband speeds.  Unlike in the United States, South Korea recognizes that internet access is a basic utility and not a luxury item.  Interestingly enough, this was the same exact conversation Americans were having 100 years ago; just replace internet with electricity.  Yes, there was a time in this country’s history when only rich people could afford to have electricity in their homes, while the rest of the country was price gouged.  Eventually, this country came to the realization that it was in society’s best interest that everyone have access to electricity.

Today we take electricity access for granted; we just expect it to be there when we switch on a light or recharge our mobiles.  At this time in our history internet access should also be seen as essential for our lives too.  There are not many things in life you can do anymore without internet access.  It is time to better regulate how private companies provide their internet service so people like my friend are not left behind in the new digital age.

Telecom World Global Previews

telecom_world_2013Greetings from Bangkok, where the staff of Global Wire Associates is attending Telecom World 2013, the world’s largest gathering of ICT professionals. In the coming weeks, we will give reports on everything we saw and the policy discussions heard that we think would be of interest to you guys.

It is no surprise the conference is being held in Asia this year, where many countries in the region are becoming emerging leaders in tech innovation.

Soichiro Seki, Director-General for International Affairs in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in Japan spoke to ITU about the important role Asian nations will play at the conference.

Many African nations are also making a lot of noise in the ICT sector like in Nigeria. Omobola Johnson, Nigeria’s Minister of Communication Technology, spoke to ITU about upcoming broadband projects in her country.

Finally, Latin America has seen a growing tech start up community in recent years. Diego Molano Vega, Minister of ICT in Colombia, spoke to ITU about how ICTs are helping to fight poverty.

Looking Towards Renewable Energy

This year, my company Global Wire Associates is focusing its website content on disparities in accessing the digital economy and how to bridge the gap among marginalized communities.  There are two overarching issues that still restrict access.  One issue is broadband access, which ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Touré has declared a basic human right.  The other issue is one that many of us in the West take for granted: access to electricity.

Approximately 1.6 billion people in the world are living without access to electricity. Electricity is still very unaffordable and unreliable in many parts of the developing world.  Most of these people use wood, coal or even dung to heat and cook in their homes, which can result in indoor air pollution that kills 1.6 million people a year.  Furthermore, those without regular access to electricity can’t recharge their electronics and participate on the Internet.  Because so much of our lives – particularly employment and education – are largely dependent on technology today, it is not in anyone’s interest to be left behind in the digital economy.

Last week I met and talked with Dr. Richard Komp, founder of the solar energy firm SkyHeat Associates.  He is one of the leading experts on solar technology and sustainable development.  He started working with passive solar and radiant heating technologies in 1951, and has literally taught hundreds of workshops on the topic of Photovoltaics (PV) around the world.

Komp is a strong believer in solar energy bridging technological equality.  He also practices what he preaches.  He designed and built his off-the-grid Maine home with solar panels on top of it and a thermal hot water system more than thirty years ago.  He says it allows him to lead a simple, inexpensive, and more fruitful life.

“I haven’t paid an electric bill in more than 25 years,” he said.

Komp has spread his solar knowledge with many people in Nicaraugua, Haiti, India and Zimbabwe over the years, building everything from solar cell phone chargers to biogas generating bathrooms.  He was also involved with supporting Daniel Dembele, a young Malian man who started his own solar panel firm Afriq-Power.  Dembele’s story was made into the documentary called Burning in the Sun.

President Obama recently promised US$7 billion for “Power Africa,” a new initiative to double electricity access on the continent.  While any investment on this vital issue is welcomed, many analysts still have questions about the project, ranging from US$7 billion not being enough to the money really going into the pockets of Big Business.

There is also the issue that the initiative might come into conflict with Obama’s climate plans.  Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development doesn’t see why electricity access and climate action have to conflict with each other.

“More than half the people in low-income neighborhoods in Nairobi and Dakar have no access to electricity,” Moss said. “For reaching urban centers and powering industrial zones, you’ll likely need traditional large-scale power plants. And current U.S. rules are keeping businesses out of that area.”  However, he also said that clean energy solutions would make more sense in areas that are far off-the-grid.

There have been many efforts recently to look at large scale renewable energy solutions.  The African Development Bank has embarked on an ambitious project to increase geothermal prospecting throughout East Africa.  This is the process of drilling geothermal regions, where hot fluids drive turbines for electricity.  The Bank will focus on building geothermal units in the East African Rift Valley.

Solar power is also being used to bridge the broadband divide.  Microsoft announced in February that it was collaborating with the Kenyan government to deliver affordable, solar-powered broadband access through white space technology.  Microsoft’s project is similar to one in South Africa just announced by Google, which uses three base stations for ten schools.

“You’re talking about delivering broadband access to communities without any electricity whatsoever, without paved roads; all these things we take as normal don’t exist in these communities,” said Paul Garnett, director of technology policy at Microsoft. “It’s exciting to be in schools where kids have never used the Internet before. Within 90 seconds they’re surfing the ‘Net, they’re using a touchscreen, and they’re off and running. It’s an amazing thing.”

Renewable energy isn’t the complete solution to electricity access, but it will contribute greatly in helping more people have better lives.

Broadband Access and Human Rights


Between attending the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Summit and hosting my own broadband webinar last week, I have a lot of ideas on the subject.  Broadband access is now viewed by many as the new digital divide.  In the United States, 19 million people don’t have high-speed Internet access, and 14 million of those without access live in rural areas.  While there have been many efforts by grassroots activists, tech firms and policy makers to close the digital gap, many are advocating that broadband is a human rights issue and that universal access is the only solution to the problem.

During a recent conversation on the subject, Susan Crawford, former Obama adviser and author of Captive Audience, said that one of the main barriers to access is the high price for broadband being charged by a monopoly of telecommunications firms. “A hundred years ago, many people thought that electricity was a luxury,” she said.  ”It took a decade to make sure everyone had electricity.  At the time there were special interest groups that wanted to make sure only rich people had it.  We succeeded as a nation because we realized that it was better for everyone’s quality of life to have electricity.” Universal broadband access improves everyone’s quality of life by leveling the playing field for marginalized communities.  Many things we do in our lives are now required to be done online, like applying for jobs and other resources or accessing health records.  Furthermore, the Internet is no longer dial-up friendly.  The vast majority of websites today are designed to be viewed using high-speed Internet. But what about mobile phones?  Yes, mobile technology has greatly helped to reduce the digital divide.  

As a matter of fact, it is expected that more people will access the Internet on their mobiles than on a PC by this year.  But there are limitations to using mobiles as well, such as slower connections based on what phone and/or carrier used and smaller screens.  It is also harder to type long-form documents like resumes and term papers on a mobile. But what about public libraries?  Yes, public libraries have led the path to more Internet access in marginalized communities.

However, most libraries have time limits on computer use, and because many times they are not well maintained, the computers may have viruses and break easily and often.  Also, some librarians are not digitally literate and are not the most useful in helping those seeking computer help, although this is changing in many communities. During the Broadband Summit, Rep. Doris Matsui said she was planning on reintroducing the Broadband Affordability Act in Congress in the next few weeks.  The original bill required “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a broadband lifeline program enabling qualifying low-income customers residing in urban and rural areas to purchase broadband service at reduced charges by reimbursing providers for each such customer served.”  The Act would also mandate that it “be similar in structure to the Lifeline program for basic telephone service, prevent awarding duplicate subsidies for an individual eligible household, and promote competition from broadband service providers by using neutral technology.”

But this is not just an issue of price.  There is also a good number of people who don’t have access because they are digitally illiterate, don’t understand why having broadband access is relevant in their lives and/or have a distrust for sensitive Internet activities, like online banking.  During both the summit and our webinar, I got many new ideas on how to convince more people to support better broadband access.  Some of these ideas are already being implemented by many government agencies and organizations, including Global Wire Associates.

  • making it easier to use electronics, i.e. instruction on how to use newly purchased gadgets
  • culturally sensitive trainings, i.e. instruction in different languages
  • community-specific trainings, i.e. senior citizens, veterans, entrepreneurs and ex-offenders – “meeting people where they are”
  • making technology more technically accessible, i.e. instructing visually and hearing impaired individuals with larger keyboards and IP Relay
  • offering free or discounted tablets to low-income students and residents, such as having a comparable tech program to the school lunch program
  • encourage multi-generational Internet trainings
  • using high schools and community colleges after hours for computer training
  • turning public libraries into fully functioning community media centers