October 6, 2009

ADE Founder: Broadband Roll-Out That Excludes Communities is "Prescription for Disaster"

John Eggerton  /  Broadcasting & Cable

Panelists hope to bridge digital divide through public/private partnerships

Alliance for Digital Equality (ADE) founder Julius Hollis did not mince any words about what he thought would be the consequences of a continuing digital divide.

He told FCC commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps during the first panel of a broadband adoption hearing in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday that if the broadband revolution excludes any community, "none of us will be safe in this world." He called it a "prescription for disaster in which America will implode."

ADE advocates for equal access to technology in underserved communities. Its partners include BET, AT&T, and wireless provider Qualcomm.

Hollis said bridging that divide would take public/private partnerships, echoing a theme of the hearing, which was that neither government nor the private sector could do it alone.

Bernie Mazyck, president and CEO of the South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, said that the FCC needed to insure organizations like his had a seat at the table, adding that a strictly marketplace-based approach was not the answer.

Copps also echoed the pleas of broadband adviser Blair Levin for solutions. "We don't just need questions," said Copps. "We need answers." The questions include what threshold speeds should be set, or not set and whether a "one size fits all" approach works. He said the FCC could get the national broadband plan wrong without participation from folks like his panelists and audience.

Ernest Andrade, founder and director of Charleston Digital Corridor, said he was not looking for "chokehold" subsidies or government to give away access. He said that the best thing the FCC could do is encourage competition.

But that doesn't mean staying on the sidelines. He said there needed to be government guidelines and standards for service. Without that, he said, it was a wild west scenario with "two guys in a truck" offering service whose economics don't get challenged. "We don't need companies coming in and dividing us up and telling us what to do," he said.

Commissioner Copps pointed out he was "greatly encouraged" by the talk of public-private partnerships, which he has been promoting for years. He pointed out that there is
probably not the incentive for private companies to do it alone.

Clyburn said that while the broadband adoption problem was about individual needs of diverse people, it would "take a village" to solve them.

It will also likely take higher speeds than the FCC's current 768 kbps threshold for the definition of high-speed. Several panelists talked about the need for health monitoring–diabetes, heart problems–applications that take multiple megs of bandwidth.