May 1 2009

Getting Online for a Better Off-Line Life

For organizers, digital divide is part of power divide

Tekle Gebremedhin, an Eritrean immigrant and veteran cab driver in Philadelphia, might not seem like the most obvious activist for broadband policy, a field long dominated by technology wonks.

But in the course of a battle for the drivers’ right to form a union, Gebremedhin and his fellow organizers at the Unified Taxi Workers Alliance (UTWA) recognized the vital role of video and the Web in telling their story. As Gebremedhin explains: “We have 3,000 drivers. It’s not easy to communicate with one another.” Internet access in places where drivers congregate, like the train station or the airport, would mean that hundreds of drivers could email each other, get a digital copy of the UTWA newsletter or resolve regulatory issues that require an Internet connection.

And so Gebremedhin and three other drivers enrolled in a basic video and Web workshop run by the Media Mobilizing Project. In the eight-week course, he and his classmates learned how to use a video camera and tell their stories, and at the end of the class they received a laptop and free Internet access for a year.

As Gebremedhin and other members of the class tell it, access to the Web changed their life. Not only has it helped them with daily tasks but it has also helped UTWA and other workers tell their stories and organize around issues of workers rights and workplace democracy.

The broader reality, though, in urban areas like Philadelphia as well as many rural parts of America, is that immigrants and low-wage workers generally do not have regular Internet access. A deep digital divide exists—a gap between who has access to the Internet and who does not—paralleling the social and economic divides in our society. Only 25 percent of low-income Americans—and only 43 percent of African-Americans of all incomes—have broadband access at home, versus 82 percent of households making over $100,000 a year (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 4/08).

In order to address this gap in access, the city of Philadelphia—where 23.5 percent of residents live below the official poverty line—attempted in 2005 to build a wireless network to provide affordable broadband access for all residents. But the city teamed with a private provider, Earthlink, that built out technology that couldn’t reach the homes of most Philadelphians. The local company that took over the project after Earthlink bailed out, Network Acqui-sition Company, is still working to make it operational, but only as an “outdoor network” that will not provide affordable Internet in the households that need it most.

In light of this failure, Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) formed the Digital Justice Coalition (DJC) in 2008 to craft a new plan to bring no- or low-cost Internet access and hardware to all Philadelphians. The coalition consists of 20 organizations like the UTWA across the city who recognize that solving the digital divide is integral to the larger mission of building a movement for social and economic justice. The DJC also offers training on basic Web, video and audio skills, as well as community journalism, so communities can tell their own stories.

The country that pioneered the Internet has lagged behind in making it democratically accessible, ignoring national broadband policy and leaving build-out, prices and quality of service up to the large telecoms. In 2008 the U.S. ranked 15th for broadband penetration per capita, a drop from 4th place in 2001 (OECD, 6/08). MMP and the Digital Justice Coalition have joined national networks working on this issue, like the Media Action Grass-roots Network (MAGNet) and the Media and Democracy Coalition (MDC), to support each other’s local efforts while building a national strategy to solve this problem.

With $7.2 billion on the table for broadband expansion as part of the National Recovery and Reinvestment Act, now is the moment to develop a thoughtful national broadband strategy like the one the DJC is trying to create in Philadelphia.

The federal government can encourage locally owned networks that have a public stake rather than a private interest, subsidize training and hardware to ensure adoption, and build the communications backbone for the economy that will lead us out of this recession. But to achieve this, every city and town needs a digital justice coalition that organizes, educates and advocates for an equitable local, national and global broadband policy.