Friday, December 28, 2007

The Broadband Census of America Act and Addressing Digital Inequality in the U.S.

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at Kirwan Institute

“This country needs a national goal for broadband technology, for the spread of broadband technology. We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007, and then we ought to make sure as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have got plenty of choices when it comes to purchasing the broadband carrier.”

On the last day of year 2007, I am reminiscent of President Bush’s speech in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 26, 2004 and wondering if we are there yet.

According to OECD Broadband Statistics in June 2007, the U.S. ranked 15th among OECD's 30 member countries in high speed Internet penetration -- the percentage of the population with high speed access. Just 22.1 percent of Americans have high speed connections, compared to more than 34 percent in Denmark, the top-ranked country. When it comes to the speed of Internet connections, the U.S. comes in 19th place with the average advertised broadband speed of 8.86 Mbps in the U.S. as opposed to 93.69 Mbps in Japan.

In the mean time, the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission)’s report issued in October says "Our analysis indicates that more than 99% of the country’s population lives in the more than 99% of Zip Codes where a provider reports having at least one high-speed service subscriber."

Why the difference? That’s because the numbers FCC uses are unrealistic and bogus: FCC’s definition of broadband is any speed over 200 Kbps; if one broadband provider provides 200 Kbps service to a single house in one zip code, the FCC considers broadband to be available to everyone in that zip code. Not only do the FCC figures falsely represent the status of broadband penetration in the U.S., the statistics of zip code level data fails to measure the degree of digital inequality across different areas (urban, suburban or rural) and different groups of people. And without an accurate depiction of the status, we cannot expect proper solutions or policies to address digital inequality.

Fortunately, legislation to create detailed nationwide maps of high speed Internet coverage is moving along in Congress with bi-partisan support. The Broadband Census of America Act, approved by the House on November 13, 2007, will require the FCC to collect better information on the status of broadband connectivity in the U.S. The FCC is now required to report data on the number of Americans who are connected to high speed Internet by the number of residential and business high speed Internet subscribers per postal zip code.

I hope that this legislation will be widely used to help produce an accurate measure of broadband penetration in the U.S. It will then enable further data analyses to uncover where digital opportunity lies or is lacking and to isolate its causes. I am also hopeful that understanding the status of broadband penetration and the degree of digital inequality will motivate efforts to address the issues. After all, we do not want to say “Game Over: U.S. is unlikely to regain its broadband leadership” as Robert X. Cringely did in August 2007, … not just yet.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Racial Lingering in Iowa (U.S.)?

By Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

There has been some discussion and media coverage based on a “racially loaded” set of questions John Edwards was asked last Friday December 14th from an “elderly White man” in Iowa (read “The Obama racial subtext surfaces in Iowa”). The focus has been somehow to underscore that that “elderly White man” from Iowa represents the racialized subtext of the U.S. population.

I would prefer to approach the coverage of the incident differently.

How about focusing on an honest (or striving for an honest) conversation on issues of race in the U.S.?

The “elderly White man” from Iowa honestly asked a question about an issue that was (or had been) bothering him and John Edwards answered, while still contesting the man’s implicit racial implications.

The conversation was not perfect, because it cannot be. We cannot have a perfect, ideal conversation surrounding race in the U.S. within an imperfect environment; an environment loaded with racial taboos. These taboos can only be unearthed through honest and continuous conversations (not through accidental conversations alone).

It is the same thing (and it is connected to) when we talk about democracy. A vigorous, vibrant democracy cannot rely SOLELY on voting every now and then. Voting is a democratic act, but it has to be cultivated. Furthermore, a democracy is not SOLELY voting. Voting is an expression of a process based on discussions, conversations, debates, proposals that should expand time and space. These discussion, conversations, debates, proposals could be “interrupted” once in a while for all citizens to vote, but the process needs to (and it will) proceed.

My point is not if that “elderly White man” from Iowa was a racist or not. My point is to focus our energies and attention on promoting this sort of open dialogues regarding issues of race (and beyond) for them to occur more often, for them to become more vibrant, for them to include different “racial” groups into the discussion, while feeling safe and comfortable. Nevertheless, this is not something that we can just wish. We need to make it happen. We need to act upon it. Thus, in the meantime it might not be that comfortable for anyone of us, but it is something that is worth striving for, if we really want a vibrant, healthy, and just democratic society.

What we do know is that talking about the “race”, however unpleasant, is of utmost necessity to unearth troubled feelings and perceptions and to be able to walk the walk toward social (racial) justice. Not publicly discussing these sort of issues would be (and has been) detrimental. Thus, what should we do? What do you think?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Building Alliances

by Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Immigration to the U.S and the relations between the immigrant communities and other communities of color (particularly African Americans) in the U.S is of crucial importance for the future and quality of the U.S. democracy. Last weekend at the “A Transformative Agenda around Race Conference” that the Kirwan Institute organized, I had the chance to attend several panels that explored this topic. I also had the chance to interview some grassroots activists, who are engaged in alliance-building work between African American and immigrant communities, for a report that the Kirwan Institute is preparing.

Based on the panels and the interviews, I want to point out two common set of challenges that affect collaboration between African Americans and the newly coming immigrant groups. Focusing on common challenges does not imply that either African American or immigrant experiences are homogenous. There is no doubt that there are class-based, cultural, racial, and regional peculiarities to each relationship that needs to be explored in greater detail.

The first set of challenges is structural. Competition for jobs or housing facilities in low opportunity neighborhoods form the thrust of structural factors that characterize the relations between low-income immigrant and low-income African American communities. In many places the newly arriving immigrants, who work in arduous conditions and barely make survival wages, become neighbors with African American communities with already high unemployment rates.

The second set of challenges is cultural barriers to effective collaboration. Many immigrants quickly “learn” that, if they want to succeed, they need to stay away from the underachieving and unsuccessful African American community. On the other hand, many African Americans are troubled by the lack of racial awareness of the newcomers. (Race is not the primary marker of personal identity in different parts of the world)

Black Alliance for Just Immigration in the Bay Area, the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network in Durham North Carolina, the Center for a New Community in Chicago, and National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights are some of the many grassroots organizations which aim to build bridges between immigrants and African Americans. These organizations try to overcome the aforementioned challenges by creating safe spaces, where members from both communities can share their stories and spell out their presumptions about the “other”. The more these stories are shared, the more people are able to break their presumed cultural understandings.

In addition to sharing stories or empathizing with each other, the activists emphasized that each community need to be educated about the history of the other community. The immigrants need to be familiarized with the history and achievements of the civil rights movement and its effects on immigration policies as well as the structural racism that continues to inflict U.S. society. On the other hand, the African American communities need to understand that international immigration is a consequence of globalization, and it cannot be understood isolated from the structural inequalities that exist between the developing and developed world. It is also crucial to point out that the racial discourse around the immigrant rights will affect the public discourse around race relations in the U.S.

When this dialogue creates some basis for trust, it is possible to form a common socio-political agenda around issues that are of interest to these communities, such as racial profiling in the criminal justice system, quality of public education, workplace safety or wage policies.

We need to take the efforts of these community activists seriously and try to enhance effective alliances between African Americans and immigrant communities, if we want to have an inclusive pluralistic democracy, in which different races and cultures thrive both by recognizing their differences and working for common goals.