Remarks of Chairman Tom Wheeler at “Digital Equity: Technology and Learning in the Lives of Lower-Income Families”
On February 3, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Rutgers University co-hosted a forum at New America in Washington, D.C. We released Opportunity for All?: Technology and Learning in Lower-Income Families with presentations by authors Victoria Rideout and Vikki S. Katz, and a series of conversations around the issues of digital equity and access to broadband, with a focus on families with school-age children. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler presented remarks, which are transcribed below, following an introduction by the Cooney Center’s Executive Director Michael Levine and Sesame Workshop’s President and CEO Jeffrey Dunn.
Thank you, Jeff, and thank you everybody. It’s great to be here in these fabulous digs, wow! Jeff that’s a really warm and thoughtful introduction and I need to turn around and say thank you to you and to Sesame Workshop for all the great leadership you have provided for so many years and continue to evolve. To be mentioned in the same breathe with Newt Minow is a singular honor. Newt Minow is the gold standard – no, no, no – Newt Minow is the platinum standard for FCC Chairman because what he did with the “vast wasteland” statement that you cited is two things: one, he stated a truth, and at the same time he issued a challenge. So Jeff, a minute ago said to me, “Okay Wheeler you better say something significant.” So I want to go off script. Okay, I’ve got stuff that I’m going to stand here and read to you but let me go off script and tell you what I think is significant in both a truth and a challenge.
That is that we all have the incredible privilege of living through one of the great network revolutions in history. I’m a history buff. It’s been 150 years since we’ve seen the kind of impact a network could have that we’re experiencing now with the Internet, particularly the wireless Internet, which is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. Okay that’s the statement of the obvious. Now what are we going to do about it? I was a venture capitalist for about a decade before I took this job. There are a lot of people out there saying, “here’s what I’m going to do about it to offer a new important service and make some money at the same time.” Absolutely nothing wrong, it’s the American way, it’s something to be celebrated. What are we going to do about it—to address the challenges of America?
If we live through this period of incredible network transformation, and don’t use the power of that network to also transform opportunities in society, shame on us. And that’s the thing that motivates me. I don’t know what the answers are but I do know that we are presented with a unique set of opportunities. I’m not smart enough to figure out the next Sesame Workshop but somebody is. And you are absolutely right, Jeff. That if we recognize what this revolution is all about and then say what are the affects of that going to be – I’m now totally off script – Jeff described me as a technology guy, and I’m kind of a geek in that regard but the history of network revolutions is that it is never the primary network technology that has the greatest effects. It is always the secondary affects that build on that technology. So we have to ask ourselves and say, “Okay, let’s get out of our just thinking about networks, networks, networks, networks, and start thinking about effects and what are the effects that are made possible by this network.” And the valuable research that I heard part of and I’m going to carry out with me and read that was presented moments ago is just an example of the kinds of affects that we need to be exploring and the importance of the kind of work that you all are doing.
Thank you to New America for inviting me. Much more important, thank you for this conference to get together to address these kinds of issues and what we’re going to do about the affects of this network. You know everybody talks about the digital divide.
The digital divide matters. It matters because of the fact that it has effects on individuals in very personal ways. We can talk all we want about the statistics, and I don’t mean to play down there are some really interesting statistics that I just saw. But the great thing about the presentation that I just saw—because it’s not just the data, it was then accompanied by “and here’s an example in a real persons life.” That’s a terrific kind of a contribution to this whole discussion because what we’re talking about is people. We’re not talking about statistics; we’re talking about people. We’re talking about people, who for one reason or another aren’t benefiting from this incredible new platform that technology has brought forth.
The digital divide has been talked about for years. Events like this are important because in the digital age, access to that platform is all about access to opportunity. And if we are not for opportunity, just what are we about?
It goes back to my point earlier. In 2016, the Internet is the first place people go to find and apply for a job. Americans need broadband to keep a job, not just apply for a job. As companies increasingly require basic literacy skills. We saw in the data that Vicky presented that our kids need broadband, our kids rely on broadband to do their homework—whether it’s completing an online assignment or researching a topic for their class. When we get sick, what do we do? We go online to find out what’s wrong. You know, Google is now faster than the CDC in terms of being able to forecast various outcroppings of the flu and other diseases. And then of course we go online to reach telehealth specialists. We’re in the process right now of bringing home a lot of men and women from fighting wars. But if you want to get the benefits that our country has promised you as a part of your service, you have to do it online. A statistic that I found very interesting is that access to broadband also helps us save money. There was a study that estimated that broadband helps a typical U.S. consumer save $8,800 a year by providing access to bargains on goods and services. Eight thousand eight hundred bucks ain’t chump change.
Now in the midst of all of this, the FCC has a statutory mandate to ensure “consumers in all regions of the country, including low-income consumers . . . should have access to . . . advanced telecommunications services.”
It’s not just the law that says that we have to do something about the digital divide. It has to be our guiding principles. It goes back to the point I just made: it’s our Newt Minow moment.
The title of the report gets it exactly right: “Opportunity for All.” It reminds us that the struggle for digital equity is part of the struggle to uphold one of America’s most fundamental values: opportunity.
We can do better. We must do better.
One way that we’re trying to do better is by retooling the FCC’s Lifeline program. Commissioner Clyburn has long been a champion of such reforms, and Commissioner Rosenworcel has helped us focus on what she dubbed the “homework gap,” that again we saw some information about this morning.
Lifeline was established in the Reagan era, in 1985, to help low-income Americans afford access to vital communications—and in those days vital communications was defined as a telephone call. Over a span of three decades, the program has helped tens of millions of Americans afford basic phone service. But in the digital era having a phone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re connected.
That’s why, last June, the Commission initiated a proceeding to recast Lifeline for the broadband era.
At a time when our economy and lives are increasingly moving online, it doesn’t make sense that the Lifeline program focuses only on 20th century narrowband voice service.
Low-income children and families need and deserve a modernized Lifeline that will help make broadband more affordable. A modernized Lifeline that allows participants the opportunity to move to the other side of the digital divide, eventually, hopefully erasing that line between Internet haves and have-nots.
So the first principle of Lifeline reform is allowing the program to support both fixed and mobile broadband service. We will propose establishing minimum standards of service that Lifeline providers must deliver to receive funds, and because technology is constantly improving, the opportunity for that service exists to constantly evolve as well. An important point: how do you fashion government programs that aren’t frozen in time? It’s the new challenge. How do we make sure there is a new program so that as technology improves, the program itself rides that improvement curve?
We will improve Lifeline’s management and design. Our current proceeding will get to the heart of the historic issues that have undermined this program’s efficiency, so we get more bang for our Lifeline buck.
We want to make it easier for carriers to participate in the Lifeline program. Too many of our country’s leading service providers as well as many local, innovative, small providers do not offer Lifeline service, because it’s too much of a hassle for them. We got to change that. The more service providers we can encourage to participate, the better that service will become. This will mean streamlining the requirements to become a Lifeline provider and taking a hard look at the burdens we place on the providers.
Finally, we will encourage robust participation in the program by eligible consumers. We want low-income, offline, or insufficiently online Americans to have multiple options for getting online – just like any other American has. And we want to introduce the concept of competition. Commissioner Clyburn has been a real champion on driving this issue. It’s not just that – okay, here’s your Obama phone (which is what those who don’t like it have called it). And this is kind of what you’ve got that. But here’s your choice. As to what service you want, as to how you want to get it, as to the device you want. Let’s create a situation where there’s choice. But how do we have a program that embraces my favorite word: Competition.
I hope you have noted my choice of words. I haven’t been saying “we should,” but, “we will.” In the not-too-distant future we will vote on new rules. There is no good reason why the Commission shouldn’t be able to come together to fix this. To fix this program and design a program for the digital age.
But modernizing Lifeline is just part of the answer to the digital equity challenge.
Promoting adoption of broadband goes hand-in-hand with efforts to ensure access. At the Commission, we’ve updated other telephone-era universal service programs to support broadband, bringing Wi-Fi and gigabit fiber connections to our schools and libraries and expanding the broadband networks to over 7.3 million rural consumers, who previously didn’t get service.
But the cause of promoting digital equity extends far beyond the work of the FCC. It’s a national challenge, requires a national effort.
The work that the New America Foundation and Sesame Workshop and this kind of meeting are doing helps to identify those issues and develop solutions.
Of course on-the-ground community activists play an important role in providing digital literacy training and informing residents about the opportunities to get connected, including but not limited to Lifeline. I was in Detroit—kind of the poster child for the hard hit American city—not too long ago. Meeting with local community groups who are organizing to help those who perhaps didn’t understand the Internet, didn’t understand it’s benefits, who were afraid of it—to begin to understand how they can harness it and how they can use it to meet the challenges that they face.
The private sector plays a hugely important role as well, investing tens of billions each year to expand and upgrade networks. Private companies like Alphabet and Comcast have stepped up to promote adoption.
And my colleagues in government have also not been shying from this. You heard President Obama—to call President Obama my colleague in government, that’s probably a little rich! (laughs) You heard the President talk about this in his State of the Union Address. He’s talked about connectivity in every single state of the union address for the last three years.
Secretary Julian Castro, it was really impressive, in his first month on the job, he called and he said, “I want to come see you.” Now I don’t think a secretary of housing has ever gone to see a Chairman of the FCC before, let alone, I’m going to come see you. He came over and he sat down and he said, “How do I learn from the programs that you have been running, to take advantage of the platforms that I have at HUD to assure connectivity for my constituents.” The ConnectHome initiative was the laudable result.
Secretary Castro and his team brought together public- and private to work on partnerships to deliver into federally supportive housing units. And I’m told that thus far they are bringing broadband, technical assistance, and digital literacy training to students and their families living in public and assisted housing across America in 28 communities, reaching over 275,000 low-income households.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has stepped up as well. He exemplifies the kind of creativity and commitment that’s needed when he stepped up and he pledged $70 million in the city’s budget for free or low-cost wireless broadband service for low-income communities. And then his really creative plan for turning old pay phone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots.
Both of those examples, of Secretary Castro and Bill de Blasio are thinking outside-the-box examples. If we think outside-the-box, we collectively think outside the box, and think why not instead of why; if we think about how we can be bold and work together, I think we can make real progress. Move this topic of the digital divide from more than a discussion to something that is overcome. And that we use the technology to focus on overcoming issues like income inequality, creating new jobs, stimulating economic growth, assuring national competitiveness. Those are pretty broad issues, those are pretty bold agendas. Those aren’t “digital divide” issues. Those are issues that are important for America, internationally and in all aspects of our activities.The stakes couldn’t be any higher. That’s why we’re not going to let our foot off the gas in our efforts to promote opportunity through communications technology. That’s why I get excited about the work that you’re doing. That’s why I’m going to read that report. Vikki, you enticed me by what I saw. I’m going to read it and learn from it.
So thank you to New American Foundation for your leadership. Jeff, thank you for you to being at the helm. Thank you for the work that all of you are doing and thank you for the privilege of inviting me to come here today.
The Chairman’s prepared remarks can be found on the FCC website.