Broadband: a communication bandwidth that lets most of us text, tweet, talk and post for hours and hours on end. It's part of our daily lives -- at least for most of us. In discussing the topic of broadband with some friends and family members, specifically broadband and the LGBT community, I was asked, "Why is it different for LGBT people?"
It was a fair question, one not posed as a challenge but as a point of clarification, a question posed by a group of people who probably only think about broadband access when they can't get a cellphone signal in the grocery store. But their question makes you wonder: Does something as big as broadband really impact one group of people differently than it does another? The answer is yes, especially when it comes to minority and/or at-risk groups.
For some LGBT people isolation is a struggle with which they contend on a daily basis. The one thing that connects them to an outside group, support system or even a lifeline is technology. With the flip of a switch, they have gone from being alone to being part of a community. Whether they live in New York City or Hays, Kan., they can, from their kitchen table, be connected to people who understand, and who can offer referral, guidance and support. They are no longer isolated.
Indeed many, if not most, LGBT community centers, especially those serving widespread areas (from multiple counties or cities to multiple states), rely heavily on technology to connect with their constituents. Whether to bring them program information, email newsletters or even lifesaving health notifications, technology plays a major role in the daily lives of LGBT individuals and the communities they live in or connect with.
In some rural areas, however, to which a central building would be outrageously far for most people to travel, an online or "virtual" community center is all that exists. These centers rely on email, social media, telecommunications and their websites to provide services to people who would otherwise have no local point of contact. And it's important to remember that when you are surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of farmland, fields, mountains, etc., "local" becomes very relative.
The people they reach at this virtual "center" might not be in the same city, but they understand where this person is from. They understand the challenges (both regional and cultural), the isolation, and the limitations with which they are faced. One call, one email, one visit to a website can have a profound impact. It can bring comfort and assurance. For a young LGBT person who has been kicked out of his or her home, it can bring shelter. It can save a life.
But for all of this, access is essential -- and access can be a challenge.
There are many people who don't have Internet (or even cellphone) access. For some, it's an economic issue. In places where unemployment is high and/or in generally low-income areas, Internet and smartphones are not must-haves but luxuries. In other areas it's a physical access issue, and that's where the broadband issue comes into play.
Government policy makers need to understand the impact that something as basic as broadband access, something that most of us take for granted, can have on at-risk and isolated populations. With that knowledge they might better address the needs of the people impacted and ensure inclusion of those communities in the full benefits of broadband.
This Thursday, Sept. 12, I will be sitting on a panel at LGBT Technology Partnership's inaugural policy forum to weigh in on these issues and open the dialogue on the impact of broadband on LGBT communities. The event, entitled "The Future of Broadband, Security and Privacy for LGBT Communities," will bring together LGBT leaders, policy makers and experts in Washington, D.C., with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai issuing the keynote address.
Broadband access shouldn't be a luxury. It should be something that every person in America is able to obtain.
For more information about the forum, please click here.