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Broadband Wagon Threatens to Leave Blacks Behind

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President Obama and Congress have charged the Federal Communications Commission with the task of developing a national broadband strategy by February 17, 2010. The goal is to provide underserved communities with this vital technology and at the same time create scores of new jobs. The commission has held public forums on the issue and invited comment from interested parties.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and five organizations of black elected officials released a report on Tuesday, titled “Broadband Imperatives for African Americans,” which included recommendations to increase its use in minority communities.

“Broadband is the major infrastructure challenge of our generation. It is for us what railroads, electricity, and other universal services were in the past,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, during the release of the report. “[It’s] essential for building businesses and getting jobs.” He also said that the report would be helpful as the agency develops its national strategy.

Long before Google, WiFi, and Blackberry, the term digital divide was coined to describe the gap between those with and without access to the Internet. Today that divide persists, with blacks lagging behind whites and Hispanics in the adoption and use of broadband at home. A Pew study found that in 2008-09, the rate of growth for blacks, whites and Hispanics increased by 7%, 14% and 21%, respectively. The reasons vary—from cost to availability–but minorities risk losing out on important educational and economic opportunities that can be gained through the use of broadband technology.

The report recommends restructuring the Universal Service Fund, mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to increase national access to advanced telecommunications services to help households pay for broadband; government subsidies for Internet service and hardware; free service for libraries and schools in low-income areas and their surrounding communities; and stimulus funds for digital awareness and broadband literacy campaigns.

“[This] is the first time that African American elected officials have issued a formal statement to the FCC in this area,” said Joint Center president Ralph B. Everett. “As the nation strives for universal access to high-speed networks, these elected and appointed officials can and will play a vitally important role in ensuring that the great promise of broadband really does deliver progress and opportunity in struggling communities.”

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