The digital divide must be addressed not only rural areas but also inner-city areas, as well, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks told the Black is Tech Virtual Conference, last week. Access to the internet is part of the solution to issues of economic security and racial justice, he said.
Internet access in rural areas has received a lot of attention from the commission. While he understands that the rural broadband access problem is real, as an FCC Commissioner, Starks said his number one priority is addressing internet inequality, particularly as it impacts low-income communities and communities of color. Nearly three times the people who live in urban areas remain unconnected to broadband as those in rural areas. Additionally, according to Pew Research data, 34 percent of black people in America do not have a home broadband connection, much higher than whites.
“That [disparity] is why we need to solve the issue of affordability and expand the commission’s Lifeline and E-Rate programs that are designed to meet the connectivity needs of low-income households and students across the nation,” Starks said.
The reason Starks is focusing on the urban digital divide is the role it takes in allowing the success of current and future black innovators, giving them the opportunity to shape economic and social outcomes of education and training, which are critical to participation in the changing workforce.
“When we’re thinking about the future of work, for example, we know that black communities will be disproportionately impacted by increased automation and digitalization in the workforce,” Starks said. “We need to reskill and upskill people whose jobs will be replaced by technology or those who will increasingly need to work alongside technology. The future of our economy is dependent on how we treat our most vulnerable communities including those most susceptible to job displacement or disruption.
Starks discussed the need to combat the prevalence of crime, misinformation and voter suppression in black communities along with disparities in healthcare access.
“This is a significant push and pull in the digital space that demands our shared attention and advocacy,” Starks said. “We need engineers, policy advocates, and investors from black communities in decision-making positions in the technology sector because the understanding of inequities and the willingness to eradicate them is essential to the betterment of our society.”
Starks recently created the Early Career Staff Diversity Initiative at the FCC to diversify commission staff at the earliest stages of their careers and ultimately increase diversity in the communications sector overall.
“The technology space in this country must better reflect the diversity of our nation,” he said. “When we continue to push for seats at the table in what is arguably the most powerful sector in our society, we have the opportunity to change the social and economic fabric of black communities across America and the world.”