The seemingly unending anxiety over the digital divide has made it’s way into the press again the past few weeks. This anxiety speaks to a very real emergent source of injustice in the US, with more and more offline activities like banking and bill payment heading online, and the threat of the post office shutting down, lack of access to the internet and the digital world threatens to leave vast populations of people behind. But far too often in discussions about bridging the digital divide, only a vague sense of worry makes it into the public narrative. Rarely are the reasons for the divide explored in any meaningful sense, and solutions are explored even less.
Which is why it was interesting to read that Comcast just announced the rolling out of its Internet Essentials program. Cast as a way to “bridge the digital divide,” the program will offer 10$ high speed internet to any family that has children eligible for school lunches, make low cost computers available, and offer internet training courses.
The downside is that the program is not being offered to people who have outstanding balances with Comcast or who have signed up for Comcast within the past 90 days. And it also is not being offered to people who do not have at least one child living with them who is eligible for school lunches. Which leaves out a pretty significant population of poor people, including seniors and people living on Social Security. But the Essentials Program does still seem like a pretty good deal, a great opportunity for families who could buy a whole weeks worth of groceries for the typical price of Comcast package.
And yet, even as this program ostensibly is good for poor people, I’ve been astonished to see the lack of critical analysis around the announcement from the media. Over and over and over again, the articles I clicked on appeared to be cut from the same press release, all of them using the same language: “opening new worlds!” “ambitious and comprehensive!” and “bridging the digital divide!” Not one article I read questioned the program, much less contextualized it. And not one of them asked the most important question of all, “Who created this digital divide to begin with?”
To answer that, you have start back in 1996 with the passage of the Telecommunications Act. Deregulation was at the core of the Act; it lifted the limits on how many radio or television stations one company could own, it allowed broadcast networks to cross own multiple cable systems. Cable rates were deregulated, and it made it harder for consumers to challenge licence renewals of broadcasters.
And as Jeff Chang showed in his excellent essay on consolidation in the radio industry, this deregulation had definite effects for local communities:
If the changes that began in 1996 began to turn off some longtime KMEL listeners, the Oct. 1, 2001, firing of radio personality and hip-hop activist David “Davey D” Cook – shortly after his show Street Knowledge aired Rep. Barbara Lee’s and the Coup’s Boots Riley’s objections to the war in Afghanistan – was the final straw. Cook’s firing seemed to symbolize the end of an era in which community input, local music, and progressive politics had a place at KMEL, and it triggered thousands of e-mails, faxes, and letters; rowdy picket lines at the station; and the current round of accountability meetings.
Ironically, Bill Clinton, the president that advocated for the bill and actually signed it into office, helped to popularize the idea of the digital divide. Shortly after the passage of the Telecom Act, the slow strangling of local communities out of media that Chang discusses began in full force. Cable rates spiked, as did phone rates. The jobs the Act was supposed to create actually played out as a loss of jobs. So not only did prices increase, but access to jobs to afford the price increases decreased.
Perhaps most devastatingly, as Chang noted, the merger resulted in a the dramatic decrease in diversity in programming and media ownership. With the cost of ownership increasing and consolidation made possible by the Act, small markets controlled by local communities of color and women (who make up a big population of the people eligible for the Essentials program) were quickly bought up and turned to general markets. Local artists of color and women artists were no longer allowed access to programming, making it so that not only did consumption of the media go down, but work produced by those communities went down as well.
The Common Cause Education Study concludes about the Act:
Nearly a decade after its passage, most Americans are not benefiting from innovations such as high definition and digital television. And the United States finds itself lagging behind the rest of the developed world in the deployment of broadband access to the Internet.
So it is within the context of a post-Telecom Act world that the Essentials program is situated. The Essentials programs was actually required of Comcast by the FCC before approval was granted for the merger–which was one of the largest mergers in history between a content provider (Comcast) and a content producer (NBC). Jenn Ettinger at WIMN’s Voices explains what that means:
The Comcast-NBC merger puts total control over production and distribution in the hands of one company. In a not so thinly veiled reference to the real-world merger, NBC’s “30 Rock” recently summarized precisely why this kind of top-down control is troubling:
Liz: What’s vertical integration?
Jack: Imagine that your favorite corn chip manufacturer also owned the number one diarrhea medication.
Liz: That’d be great ’cause then they could put a little sample of the medication in each bag.
Jack: Keep thinking.
Liz: Except then they might be tempted to make the corn chips GIVE you…
Jack: Vertical integration.
Liz: Wow, that should not be allowed to happen.
In other words, media companies are now allowed to not only tell us why we need them, but they can manufacture our need for them as well. To return to the Essentials program, after 15 years of shutting out poor communities from access through spiking cable, internet and phone prices, decreased diversity in programming and ownership, and less and less sophisticated analysis, the idea that offering $10 services to a targeted population of people within the poorest segments of society is “bridging the digital divide” makes very little sense. It is the act of merging that creates the digital divide–so how on earth can a stipulation within the merger act as a bridge to fixing that divide? But the thing is, the very few corporations that now control not only the content but the distribution of that content have the power to convince us of exactly that.
And yet, even as I am critical of the Essentials program, I will not dismiss it out right. In my home community, $10 internet can absolutely make a difference for a lot of people. So can inexpensive computers. But I do think it’s important to approach this “opportunity” for what it is, a legally mandated action required to offset the disastrous effects of yet another merger–which will have the overall impact of reinforcing our lack of access even further. As such, rather than viewing the Essentials program as a solution or a “bridging” of the digital divide, I think we need to approach it with a strategy, specifically with an eye on accountability. How can we keep Comcast accountable to the communities it says it is attempting to help? Or, more specifically, how can we keep the media accountable to communities most devastated by these mergers?
I think one of the most important things media can do, especially the independent media, is to contextualize the Essentials program and Comcast and the practice of merging much more thoroughly for the public. To make it very clear for community members exactly what they are dealing with when they start a relationship with Comcast or any media corporation. The Essentials program is not an apolitical program and it’s most certainly not an attempt to fix the problems that Comcast and the very merger that is requiring this program created. Then by being aware, community members can use their $10 internet access to join the fight for true digital justice.