Is access to broadband a right?
On March 9, Michael J. Copps of the Federal Communications Commission challenged the American people at the “American Digital Inclusion Summit” to expand opportunity through universal broadband access. In his remarks he asked us to engage in a conversation about whether the role of the Internet in our lives has risen to such an important level that access to it is now a right.While we can let the constitutional law experts dissect the legal nuances of the question, his point does offer much richness for thought and dialogue. As the Internet integrates more and more of our social, educational and economic opportunities, how do we guarantee that people in rural areas, people living in poverty and people with disabilities are not further left behind by this ever increasing digital divide?Consider if you were a student or someone interested in improving your skills and qualifications so you can get a better job, but you live in a rural area without broadband, or perhaps you cannot afford Internet access. Since you do not have access to the Internet, you cannot participate in online classes offered by so many educational institutions. The majority of job opportunities are now listed online, and many employers require you to submit your application and resume via e-mail. More and more basic business transactions — such as banking, bill-paying, shopping and even ordering prescriptions or making medical appointments — are now conducted online. Without Internet access, you are missing out on opportunities and are left behind. It is analogous to the physical environment three decades ago, when the world around us was not accessible to persons in wheelchairs. It was a time when there were no curb cuts so a person could not get on the sidewalk to get close enough to an establishment to transact business, apply for a job, shop or be able to socialize with friends in a restaurant.As a society, we recognized we would be better off to make the investment in the elimination of these barriers. The same is true about access to broadband. For many people with disabilities, the lack of transportation or the need for personal care assistance are huge barriers to competitive employment. Access to broadband would create greater options and flexibility to employment opportunities that could allow people to work from home with varying hours.The result would lift people out of poverty and benefit us all. Ultimately, closing the gap of the digital divide would spearhead economic opportunity for many, create new customers for businesses and assure that as a society we do not leave anyone behind. Finally, many describe the Internet as the new town square where more and more social and political interactions occur. As a society we cannot design a system that leaves the view, opinions and life experiences of so many behind. What has contributed to America’s greatness is our ability to exchange ideas and engage in thoughtful debate. The ability for everyone to access this new town square is vital to our further growth as a nation so that no one view dominates. As Commissioner Copps remarked, “When we have people who seek no more than honest opportunity, when we have the tools to make it happen, and when we have this brief moment in time to combine the great engine of our private sector with the kind of visionary public policy that has always guided America’s great infrastructure build-outs, we dare not let the moment pass. This is our responsibility. It’s not something that would be nice for us to do ... I think it is a civil right to have this kind of access, because access denied is opportunity denied.” Clyde Terry is chief executive of Concord-based Granite State Independent Living.