THE BLOG

The Real State of the Union Winners: Underserved Americans

01/31/2011 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In his State of the Union speech earlier this week, President Barack Obama called on Washington to make it possible for business to extend the next generation of wireless services to 98 percent of all Americans saying, "This isn't just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls. It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age." To achieve this goal he launched a new effort - the National Wireless Initiative - that will foster the conditions for the next generations of wireless technology, nearly doubling the amount of wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband and providing critical support for research and development in wireless innovation. The initiative will enable businesses to grow faster, students to learn more, and public safety officials to access state-of-the-art, secure, nationwide, and interoperable mobile communications at a critical time for this country.

In the days following his notable speech, folks have been quick to identify the "winners" and "losers," particularly in this area of wireless expansion. I have seen wireless companies overwhelmingly dubbed as the "clear winners" with TV broadcasters consequently called the "losers." And although I understand where folks are coming from here, I am disappointed that there isn't more talk about the group that I think really wins big with as a result of this key initiative - namely, the millions of Americans and a disproportionate number of minority Americans still sitting on the wrong side of the digital divide who continue to struggle to compete with their digitally-connected counterparts in our growing, digital global economy.

Today, broadband is absolutely essential for obtaining and advancing jobs, growing our economy and competing on a global scale, among other things, yet the most recent numbers from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimate that roughly 80 million American adults do not subscribe to broadband at home while anywhere from 14-24 million Americans still lack broadband Internet access. And according to a recent report, low-income, rural and some minority groups continue to lag significantly behind other U.S. groups in broadband adoption. Whether they realize it or not, these millions of Americans are at a serious disadvantage - particularly if they are trying to compete with the 9.4% of Americans currently unemployed for a job in today's uniquely competitive marketplace. I believe that expanding our wireless broadband networks is a critical step toward getting this group of struggling Americans on equal footing in order to truly have a fair shot at achieving and maintaining the American Dream.

We have already begun to see glimmers of what the growing wireless sector can do to improve the lives of Americans and lessen economic disparities that exist in our society. More than ever wireless is leading the way and is helping communities of color connect and access the power of the Internet. Not only are minority communities the leading adopters of wireless technology, but African Americans and Latinos also overwhelmingly choose to access the Internet through wireless devices. For minorities the ability to "go wireless" represents future economic prosperity and opportunity. The president's efforts to expand wireless broadband will go a long way toward ensuring equal and affordable access, a caveat that we must meet if the promising trends coming out of this sector are to continue.

There's more. Expanded access to the next generation of wireless services will generate major economic growth and rapid job creation, fostering crucial economic empowerment in communities of color that have been marginalized as a result of the economic downturn we have faced in America since 2008. In addition to new jobs related to the expansion process - jobs in an industry that touts continued growth and higher paying salaries than others - extended wireless services will accelerate business development by providing new opportunities for innovation, expansion, and e-commerce. Clearly this is a move in the right direction as we continue with efforts to get back to full strength.

In his own words, the president's plan for expanded wireless broadband access will, "trigger the creation of innovative new businesses, provide cost-effective connections in rural areas, increase productivity, improve public safety, and allow for the development of mobile telemedicine, telework, distance learning, and other new applications that will transform Americans' lives." The announcement of this new initiative should come as very good news to the millions of Americans who have yet to get connected, and have the most to gain from equal and affordable access that will be fostered by this exciting new expansion plan. These folks are the real winners here.

Julius H. Hollis is the CEO of the Alliance for Digital Equality, a non-profit organization that receives funding from a wide array of organizations including those from the telecommunications, energy and entertainment sectors.