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Expanding Internet Adoption: Think Federally, Act Locally

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After a divisive election season, the new Congress, regulators, and state and county officials should choose to focus on initiatives that have broad-based support and bring real benefits to American citizens. A good place to start is with high-speed Internet availability and adoption -- which bring real, tangible social and economic benefits to citizens and will help to bridge the digital divide that has left many predominately African American counties out of the Internet revolution.

In the age of rapid internet expansion, many would assume that any American who wanted to access the World Wide Web could easily do so. Not quite, according to a recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) study commissioned by the Department of Commerce. Surveying approximately 54,000 U.S. households nationwide, the Commerce Department found huge access disparities among low-income families, minority groups and disabled Americans, and African Americans were frequently cited as being on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The FCC's National Broadband Plan -- announced earlier this year -- seeks to close this divide through realizing the goal of universal broadband adoption. In this digital age, internet access is no longer a luxury, but an essential component of economic well being and even everyday life. Just think about the daily tasks that require, or are made significantly easier, through home or mobile internet. Furthermore, another recent study found that being online can save an American family over $7,200 per year!

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski recently stated, "The digital divide is an opportunity divide -- if you can't get online, you can't compete in the digital economy."

Although internet use rose from 9 percent to 64 percent of American households between 2001 and 2009, the participation swell largely excluded African Americans and low income families. The NTIA study found that households making less than $25,000 annually saw a much lower increase in usage than households making more than $75,000. Those statistics are largely in line with the FCC's Broadband Consumer Survey, which ranked affordability as the primary obstacle to home adoption.

However, the access gap isn't limited to financial constraints. The Commerce Department report also found that African American households with the same income and education level as white households are still less likely to have broadband access. Geography is also a factor, with rural residents 7 percent less likely than their urban counterparts to have broadband access. But even that disproportion is deepened by racial lines, with a 10 percent difference between whites and African Americans.

Our country is founded upon freedom and equality, and there is no reason why our "digital nation" should play by a different set of rules. The Commerce Department and FCC's findings provide further ammunition for the National Broadband Plan, which will work to bring every individual in this country to the same playing field, a digital place where discrimination doesn't exist.

It's critical that Congress and the FCC focus on the goal of universal broadband and not get distracted by divisive internet regulation policies, such as net neutrality legislation, that suck the energy out of those policymakers who can actually make a substantial difference in the lives of Americans. Universal internet adoption enjoys bipartisan support, and there's no reason for federal, state, or county officials to allow controversial issues to distract from accomplishment of this important goal. What everyone would like to see is federal action that supports and empowers governments at the local level to address the disparities that exist in accessing such a beneficial tool as the internet.

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