Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 284

This is the transcript for episode 284 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance explains the connections among digital divides and economic inequalities. Listen to this episode here.



Angela Siefer: When folks use the term digital divide we will opt and remind them there's more than one digital divide as technology progresses. We will find ourselves in more and more situations where there's somebody who has access or somebody who has skills and somebody who doesn't.

Lisa Gonzalez: You're listening to episode 284 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. To most of us the term digital divide relates to issues of economic inequalities. But the issue is actually more complex in this episode Christopher talks with Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance about the problem of digital inclusion and some of the steps communities are taking to address it. Angela and Christopher also discussed some of the causes of digital inequality how network neutrality affects digital inclusion and the relatively new phenomenon of digital redlining. Be sure to take a few minutes to check out their website where they have some great resources at Digital Now let's get to it. Here's Christopher with Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And I'm talking today with Angela Siefer the executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome to the show. Thanks for having me Chris. Thank you for coming. You know I've been aware of your work for a long time and it's frankly it's a travesty that I haven't had you on. We've been on a bit of a rural kick lately so I'm hoping people will appreciate getting back to more of an urban policy issue not that digital inclusion is exclusively an urban policy issue but I think a lot of your groups are focused on urban areas. Let's just start off very briefly your digital inclusion alliance what is digital inclusion.

Angela Siefer: The way we define digital inclusion is that is that the activities that get us to Digital Equity and that totally doesn't make any sense unless you know what Digital Equity is, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Well let me let me ask you then.

Angela Siefer: What is Digital Equity so Digital Equity is the condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that they need for full participation and you could think of broad participation as civic, cultural, employment, education, health. So there's a lot of things that require us to have access and use of technology and so we define Digital Equity as that goal. That's what we want is everybody participating there and then digital inclusion is how do we get there and the way you get there is you have to have access at home. It needs to be affordable and has to be the right speed.

Angela Siefer: You need the right device that is appropriate for your needs. You need to have tech support and you need digital literacy skills. So those are the programs and the activities that get us to the Digital Equity.

Christopher Mitchell: Now you said that we have access at home. I'm strongly in agreement with you. But tell me why that's the right the right thing as opposed to just focusing on libraries and saying well a person could go to a library or a community center for that high quality access they might need the public access is an important resource in communities.

Angela Siefer: But we can't rely upon the public access to do our day to day tasks what is required of us now to participate in society is so much and so pervasive there is no way it can be done during the hours you can get yourself to a public access centre. Anyone who has teenagers would tell you they don't do their homework when you think they should do their homework they do their homework about

10:00 at night when you think they should be going to bed. So how can we send them to the library at

10:00 at night. That's impossible. And for the rest of us too. When a my doing my online banking is not during normal our supper I've got my kids to bed well and I would say that as a parent of a two year old.

Christopher Mitchell: Happy Birthday Jackson just passed. It's hard to imagine how inconvenient it would be to to be trying to figure out how to apply for a job you know especially if I didn't have the incredible computer skills that I do have. I mean incredibly talented. I don't know if you know that but if I was a person who struggled to use a computer with a two year old on my lap trying to I just imagine that that would be a hassle in the library and I think it gets down to do we think that the Internet and use of the Internet is so important today is it a public utility.

Angela Siefer: Is it something you have to have. Is it like electricity. And if so is it something where we're going to say well if you're poor Sarah you've got to get yourself to the library and to bad for your kids. Are we going to say no this lifts all of us up just like electricity right with that all of us up when we all had it. It's the same thing with the Internet.

Christopher Mitchell: It lifts us all up right when we talk about digital inclusion programs. One of the senses that I get is that they're spread unevenly and so you know in coming years I would expect that we will see. There are communities in which everyone has that access everywhere. An entire city may have achieved Digital Equity and yet nearby or a comparable city in another state would not have you know it seems like this kind of an unevenness in part because of these digital inclusion programs seemed to be highly local in nature right now. So maybe you could tell me anything that links digital inclusion programs together that they all have in common.

Angela Siefer: We don't have any United States we don't have the a federal program or even a national program that defines how it is that we are going to make sure everyone has access. And so that means that all of the solutions have been local there locally created and they work with in particular communities. The strategies are based upon existing resources maybe not upon how somebody would actually want to solve the problem but upon the resources they have in front of them. And so they and they go at it from different ways.

Angela Siefer: So if you look at any community sometimes you'll find a computer recycling operation that gets low cost computers into the hands of disadvantaged populations and sometimes you know sometimes you'll find a project that is helping educate individuals as to the low cost Internet offers that are available in that area. Sometimes you don't. And so all of these different solutions they go at it a different way.

Christopher Mitchell: And if there isn't someone who says hey let's figure this out then that program just doesn't exist in that community is just typically an effort that's activist driven where some people that are doing this out of the goodness of their heart in after hours. Is it a local nonprofit is a municipal taxpayer subsidized kind of operation. You know how do these programs work.

Angela Siefer: It has been all of those things because it's local. Sometimes it is a municipality and we have on our website digital inclusion or you'll see that there's a trailblazer section where we tell you which cities municipally led efforts are really impressive and here's what they're doing. But in other places the municipality is not involved. And it's just community based organizations or it's just the library. Sometimes foundations are involved local foundations. But the efforts vary so it's not just one entity. The three places where we most often see digital inclusion work is community based organizations libraries and local governments.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there any particular program you just like to quickly highlight. I'm sure that there's many programs but it's a misere one that you can just tell us about. Ideally one I think that's run by a city. Since we are we tend to focus on municipally led infrastructure and the different programs I've seen city of Seattle.

Angela Siefer: They have been the the one program that all of us wished we had in our city for over a decade. Price within 16 years because they have actual funding for digital inclusion programs and they have significant funding. And I think they have forced staff like it's a big number. Most cities have zero staff or maybe have divers in and Seattle has an actual department whose job is to help support the they call it community technology because it was created back when that's the term that we all use or that some of us use so that the community technology department there they provide grant funding and they provide support to the community based organizations and libraries that are doing the digital inclusion work.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Unfortunately this kind of a flip side to digital inclusion organizations and that's redlining wasn't redlining campaigns but really it's more of a practice that I think is more or less natural in an environment with very little regulation and where the infrastructure is provided by profit seeking institutions.

Angela Siefer: So let me just ask you you know for people who might not be familiar that term or may have only heard it in regard to banking what is digital redlining the way that NTIA has used the term digital redlining is to refer to neighborhoods or even households where they do not have access to a particular broadband infrastructure. And the reason they don't have access to that broadband infrastructure is because the company rolling it out chose not to roll it out to that neighborhood because that neighborhood is inner city or is adjacent to inner city and from where we're sitting we're making assumptions that probably it was a decision about profit that you're going to make more profit if you invest your infrastructure in a wealthier neighborhood which is totally logical except the companies don't want to talk about that fact.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we've come across as we've learned more about the municipal space is the real challenge of people that have bad credit which is to say that in these low income neighborhoods and we can talk about Cleveland where India has been very active and we're going to come back and we're going to focus a show just on Cleveland of what's happening there with digital redlining. But one of the things that I suspect happens is there's a strong demand there but people both have trouble paying the bills and then also can get behind for a month or two and then they're kind of stuck. So you know I'm just it's worth noting that companies not investing those areas it's not necessarily because of a lack of demand it's because of barriers to exercising that demand. In my experience

Angela Siefer: I think the challenge also is that we don't know why the companies aren't investing there. Maybe it has something to do with that. Maybe it doesn't. Right. Maybe it's it is really because they can charge more for a service in a different area.

Angela Siefer: And because we're not having honest conversations with the companies rolling out the service and the digital redlining work we did in Cleveland was about AT&T because we haven't been able to have those honest conversations. We don't know why they're not rolling it out there.

Christopher Mitchell: That's a really good reminder. And I think it's worth noting sometimes we fall into the trap and I says that people who like us suspect as well as me are very suspicious of people who have this belief that markets are magical. Now I happen to love markets and I and I love studying what makes markets work and I recognize sometimes they don't work. One of the reasons they sometimes don't work is because people bring their own prejudices into their work.

Christopher Mitchell: So if AT&T is not investing in Cleveland it may not be for good reasons.

Angela Siefer: It might be because they are just making some assumptions in terms of where they're investing because frankly AT&T is not a brilliant company in terms of its history of making smart investments and the talent in this is that as we do the mapping and we saw that we were we were able to overlay where AT&T was rolling out their more advanced services and where the poverty levels were. And we did it in Cleveland Detroit Toledo Dayton. And we've encourage others to do the same work. Are the challenges are that when we when we do that we don't know. We don't know the whys. Right.

Christopher Mitchell: We get reassurances that AT&T will bring infrastructure there but it might look different. We don't know what that look different is if it's going to be as good as what the other neighborhoods have receives.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And again I think this comes back to just a paradox of U.S. policy which is ignoring the tradeoff of embracing a competitive you know style of markets without being able to require or encourage competition and getting rid of all the regulation that that previously would have led to more investment. You know one of the things that I think people miss in terms of why we have cable networks everywhere in our cities is because cities required them to go everywhere and we don't have that with Internet access and there's a good reason that we may not want to encourage that. But there is a tradeoff to that.

Angela Siefer: Reed Mandia has made a clear line between the fact that the states that have state franchise cable franchise laws and where there are digital redlining that so in Ohio for example AT&T did not need to roll out to everyone because it's a state franchise and that they skipped the whole city of Youngstown because they just don't want to go to Youngstown. When

Christopher Mitchell: you think about Ohio people might think of Cincinnati Cleveland as being pretty hard hit in the modern economy. You know I just learned this in Columbus when I was there with the folks from the intelligence communities in Dublin. Youngstown is one of the hardest hits. And when you don't get the infrastructure of the future it makes it impossible to recover.

Angela Siefer: And then there's no competition.

Angela Siefer: Right so if AT&T is not going there well then who's left. So many in Ohio in particular we have the cable company that is most common here in the urban areas Charter Spectrum.

Angela Siefer: And so if they're the only option you can get them for 60 65 dollars a month or you can get. That is really good speeds it's really solid or you can get AT&T but you might only get stream while you're going. Hey forty dollars for it. There's no. And then that's it. You don't have any other choices. Right. The lack of competition is huge.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I always want to tack on when people say 3 meg is that you have to understand I know that you get this already but people should understand that you're not just talking about a solid 3 megabit connection. You're probably talking about a connection that's advertised three Meg may deliver to probably resets itself a couple of times a day. I mean that's an old school technology that just does not work as well and is often not maintained very well because it's part of the state that AT&T is walking away from. But let's let's dive into another issue which is net neutrality. You know as as this airs were two days away from the Federal Communications Commission getting net neutrality I think it is a theme from some of the cable and telephone companies they may try to present this as kind of like a Cadillac problem where you know Net Neutrality is just for you know upper middle class type of folks who might worry about it but it really doesn't impact anyone else. What's your perspective from the digital inclusion and Digital Equity lens.

Angela Siefer: So our concern is that this is going to cause more digital divides. When folks use the term digital divide. We will often remind them there's more than one divide that as technology progresses we will. We find ourselves in more and more situations where there's somebody who has access or somebody who has skills and somebody who doesn't. If our internet service providers are allowed to charge extra or not charge for certain types of content. Well then Individuals who have resources just purchased what it is they needed to purchase to begin with. And those who don't have resources will accept whatever it is the providers are giving them that is the cheapest option. When that content is tied to that we are exacerbating we're creating another digital divide.

Christopher Mitchell: There is a line of thought that giving the ISPs more power may allow them to create lower cost packages for people who don't use as much. You know I suspect one of the populations that we haven't talked about your groups work with is elderly folks who may one Internet access but don't use a whole lot. And there's an argument that you know if there could be fast lanes and slow lanes maybe the slow lanes would be less expensive for people who are more price sensitive. Would that help that population at all?

Angela Siefer: It helps if we don't want them to ever advance which just kind of makes me want to scream. So if a family can only afford the slow lane like actually it's not too far from the data cap situation that we have now. So if you can't, the closest you can get is your mobile phone which has a data cap and your whole family is on two Gigs or something insane you have to decide how you're going to use that.

Christopher Mitchell: And if you're in a slow lane you're going to make those kinds of decisions where well no honey you can't take that online class because when I looked at the university's website it said it had this minimum requirement for speed and we can't afford that speed. So the fast lane slow lane is very very real.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And one of the things that you know I often say when I'm presented with that argument when I'm not making it is a devil's advocate host position is that I can't remember the last time a major monopoly argued for deregulation in order to lower anyone's Bill.

Angela Siefer: Yes. Yes exactly. And were not. Those options aren't available now. Why do we think all of us and it's going to become available. The only low cost options that we have right now from major Internet service providers were mandated or they were agreed upon in some kind of merger agreement. Some of them decided to keep them like Comcast kept their Internet Essentials which is fabulous.

Angela Siefer: I wish every internet service provider had a low cost option that they would keep more than just a couple of years.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. That you could count on. Let's talk a little bit about the final part of our conversation about data. One of the things that you noted were going Cleveland is that you know like AT&T is going around saying these are the neighborhoods we're not investing in. And similarly there's no federal database of how much people are paying for internet access. What do you do to try and get the data that you need to do your analyses.

Angela Siefer: The lack of consumer internet service cost data is a huge problem in the United States. And I think that problem is actually leading to policymakers misunderstanding the issue of the digital divide because we're always talking about the data that we do have which is where is which infrastructure. Which side note that data is not very good either because it's limited to only it's based upon erroneous assumptions that but that we do have some data. So it's a good starting point starting points are really important. We have data on where infrastructure is whether or not we think it's great. What we don't have is the cost data. So if you have data that says where it is then you're going to focus upon where the infrastructure is but you're not focusing on how much it costs people to access that infrastructure because we don't have any cost data.

Christopher Mitchell: Nobody's talking about the cost of entering that and it's incredibly frustrating because it really controlled the conversation as far as I know.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the main sources of information we have on why people have not adopted is the Pew studies and they seem to suggest that it's a significant barrier in your experience? What is it, cost?

Angela Siefer: The main barrier or you know Dukie say that with any kind of precision we know from the work that Pugh's done from the work from the census and others from research from academic researchers we know that the barriers to our cost digital literacy and the term that was often uses relevance. So do you think the Internet is important to you if you think it's not important to you then you don't purchase your home broadband subscription. The relevance issue. What we've learned through researchers in the last few years is that the relevance issue is tied very closely to cost and digital literacy. So if you say it's not important and thus you're not going to purchase it. Are you saying that because you actually don't know what you could do with it. So with the digital it's tied up in digital literacy are you saying that because you can't afford it and why.

Angela Siefer: Why am I going to talk to you about something I can't afford. I can't afford it so I'm not going to tell you I don't need it. There are not three distinct barriers. All three of them are tied to each other.

Christopher Mitchell: That makes sense. I think I went through this with relatives my in-laws live in northern Minnesota and it took them a lot of years where we went up there and they did not have any internet access and there was no mobile access through the carrier that my wife and I use so you know we go up there for weekend and we would not have any internet access which was quite amazing. You know someone who does a job in which I'm responding to e-mails often seven days a week. Now they have a DSL connection that's actually better than I thought it would be. It's on the order of six megabits on a good day and it's been fascinating because I don't think they would have thought of what it could do. So we got them an iPad and with the internet connection there. It's so easy for them to peruse books from the county and local library.

Christopher Mitchell: And so I used to be on the Hunton used bookstores to look out for books that I thought that my father in law would like. And now he just finds all kinds of books on the library and it's you know this amazing thing and it's what's interesting is that in some ways it's unlocked a public resource that was already there but inconvenient for them. And I know they can use it differently. But but they wouldn't have known that until they spent and it wasn't just something that we learned in like a week of using the Internet. They had to have a period of time where they were using it and trying different things experimenting and libraries are learning that too right. So there are more libraries recognizing that they need to be working on home broadband because their resources are so digital.

Angela Siefer: That they have created their own digital divide intentionally right intending to be very helpful to the community and have these digital resources but there are portions of the population that have to get into the library branch to make use of those resources.

Angela Siefer: And there are the individuals there those of us who are more fortunate and don't have to get ourselves out of our houses to get those resources.

Christopher Mitchell: If someone is listening to this and they're thinking wow I could do something I could help out. Is there a place we can get plugged in or get inspired as to what they might do.

Angela Siefer: That's a tough one. The reason that it's tough to send folks somewhere is because these efforts are so local. Right. So it is asking around locally what you can do is go to the NDAA Web site digital inclusion dot org and on our affiliates there's a tab that says affiliates you click on affiliates and then kind of buried or in process of Exynos. There's a link that says map. So if you click on the map you'll be able to see where our affiliates are. Know that it's important to note that we don't know where all the digital collision programs are. These are the ones we've managed to gather into the family but there are a lot more beyond this. So this is just the starting place to see who's working on this conclusion efforts in your area. If you know of others that we don't know of send them to us. We went to the family we want to bring more folks. But it's also I think a matter of asking around in your community. So who's tweeting digital literacy.

Angela Siefer: And you'll probably be told the library and then you might also be told a church or a community center.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you so much for this initial interview. And we're going to have you back soon to talk about some other matters around digital inclusion and go a little bit deeper.

Angela Siefer: I look forward to that. Thank you Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available meaning networks dot org slash broadband bits. Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow us on Twitter his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts: Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules Podcast. You can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through creative commons and thanks for listening to episode 284 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.