Chairman Ajit Pai and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently made a big decision: to put an end to investigations into what is known as “free data” or “zero-rating” programs.
Though the announcement was met with scorn from some online activists, the announcement was a historic milestone for those of us who have been committed to ensuring all Americans—especially, those in low-income and minority communities—have the critical internet-based tools and resources they need to compete in today’s world. Chairman Pai’s praiseworthy focus on increasing digital access and closing the digital divide will allow the new FCC to make significant progress regarding digital equality.
I have written before on the importance of free data, which allows consumers to successfully access life-changing resources, content, and support through a simple click or touch on their mobile devices. It works by allowing customers to access digital content services under a fixed mobile data plan, where any overage usage and charges are absorbed by the provider. In return, consumers who normally cannot afford mobile data or are on modest budgets can experience the endless possibilities of online access.
The need for this connectivity in minority and other low-income communities cannot be articulated enough. Pew Research Center confirms blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to receive internet access through their mobile devices. A similar report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) confirmed 20% of low-income households—those making less than $30,000 annually—depend solely on mobile internet due to lack of wired connection. The report noted this has doubled since 2013.
The statistics are not and should not be surprising. These individuals are faced with the decision to connect to a virtual world outside the boundaries of their neighborhood and the stark realities of affording food, clothing, or housing. Something like landline internet access is a luxury in these modest communities, and as such only further underscores the need for mobile wireless access.
It is easy to overlook the huge role that services like mobile data play in our day-to-day lives if you are fortunate enough to afford it on your own. These are not just platforms that offer entertainment value like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. But rather educational apps that provide children enhanced pedagogical tools to enhance their learning experience and acquire new skills. While also providing job hunting resources for struggling Americans who can peruse employment lists or search for ways to improve their résumé. There are also apps that provide critical medical information, patient-to-physician communication, and health monitoring to stay on top of wellness goals.
The decision to end the investigation into free data programs tracks with the vision and goals of Chairman Pai’s “Digital Empowerment Agenda,” which will ensure that Americans will have the ability to access and engage in the digital economy, regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or where they reside. At its core, Pai is trying to start a public conversation about what “opportunity” means in the 21st century, as for many Americans, opportunity starts with access to high-speed internet that gives them an onramp to all the information and innovation held on the web.
Free data is just one way to strengthen our digital equality agenda. The FCC recently approved a proposal allocating billions in funds over the next decade to build out 4G LTE throughout the U.S., increasing access to networks. And, the FCC also has a proposal to utilize tax incentives to encourage broadband deployment in low-income and rural communities.
The FCC’s renewed dedication to reducing disparities and help bring all Americans into our remarkable 21st-century digital world is a welcomed breath of fresh air in an increasingly divided political and social climate, prioritizing equality and pushing measures and resources that will increase internet access in disadvantaged communities.