On Juneteenth, Recognize Broadband’s Role in Building a Just Society

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, June 19, 2020

Digital Beat

On Juneteenth, Recognize Broadband’s Role in Building a Just Society

Adrianne B. Furniss

Perhaps there’s no better day to contemplate the critical connection between communications and equity than Juneteenth.

June 19 commemorates the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas first learned about the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Cut off from communications, slaves in Texas were deprived news of their freedom for over two and a half years.

In our time when information travels at the speed of the internet, it is almost inconceivable that anyone could be denied information so vital to their well-being for so long. But in ways more subtle but nevertheless insidious, too many people lack access to the essential communications tool of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, if I substituted 2020 for 1998 and broadband for Internet, this passage from a Benton Institute report, Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low-Income Communities in the Information Age by Susan Goslee, is just as true today.

By 1998, we may assume that every American has at least heard of, if not used, the global network called the Internet. But while kids in wealthier households may now take access to technology – at home, at school, or at the local library – for granted, the lack of access to up-to-date computers in low-income communities and to affordable Internet service in rural areas leaves many people cut off from good jobs and the chance to participate in the affairs of the broader society.

Limiting full participation of anyone in our society on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex diminishes us all.

As schoolchildren, we all learned to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, our promise to each other. We end that pledge saying “with liberty and justice for all.”

Congressman Jim Clyburn invoked the Pledge as he introduced a plan to ensure that every household in the U.S. is connected through broadband.

“My vision for this great country,” Rep. Clyburn said, “is making its greatness accessible and affordable for all.”

Yet 22 years after Losing Ground Bit by Bit, too many people are still disadvantaged in part because they cannot access or afford broadband in their home—and this is a fairness and justice issue.

Our children don’t have access to online classrooms. Families in areas lacking doctors are cut off from healthcare. Workers can’t apply for jobs or start online businesses.  

The challenge is not to improve the lot of some people in America; it is to offer everyone the ability to connect, regardless of where they live, to empower all people using the network.

We all have a stake in achieving an inclusive, democratic future. Broadband is the tool everyone in this country needs to fulfill their potential, the tool communities need to serve the common good.

Society is an organism. And broadband networks serve as its nervous system. Just as the whole body suffers if some parts of it aren’t able to communicate with the rest, society suffers if some individuals and communities are digitally disconnected.

As we recover from the health and economic crises of 2020, as we challenge ourselves to make our union more perfect and just, let us ensure that the essential communications tool of the 21st century is finally available and affordable for all.

“We’ve got a tremendous opportunity to … restructure infrastructure so that broadband will be as much a part of infrastructure as roads and bridges,” Rep.  Clyburn said. “That’s what this is all about, to restructure. I’m not backing away from that.”

Neither are we.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Foundation.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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