What a Difference a Year Makes

Today marks the first anniversary of Charles Benton’s death.

You may have known Charles because you met him at a conference or you spoke on the phone or you read one of his articles. Tall, large of voice, possessed of dazzling grin and intractable hair, Charles naturally drew considerable attention. He was the Benton Foundation for many people.

Over the past 12 months, there has been an incredible outpouring of love, support, and fond memories of Charles. My colleagues and I have had the pleasure of traveling around the country to be part of many celebrations of Charles’ – and the foundation’s – contributions:

  • Participants at the annual conferences of the Schools, Health & Libraries Coalition (SHLB), and the Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy (TPRC) took time to remember Charles. He would have been so moved by these tributes at conferences he attended over the years as he always believed that personal contact was as important as the ideas being discussed and promoted.
  • Last May, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) board, on which Charles was an Obama appointee, passed a resolution to honor his memory and celebrate his significant and visionary contributions over the course of his distinguished career.
  • In August, I was in California at the Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference. Charles received the Dirk Koning-George Stoney Award for championing the growth and experience of humanistic community communications. [Communication is about the connections between people, how they choose to live together, and how they address common challenges.]
  • The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) honored Charles as a Community Broadband Visionary, noting a lifetime of extraordinary support and advocacy for the development and proliferation of local community broadband systems.
  • Earlier this month, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois recognized Charles’ many years of working to 1) ensure broadband access throughout the State of Illinois, 2) maximize broadband’s impact and use, and 3) collect and publish broadband-related data, information, and research.
  • In a couple of weeks, I am presenting the inaugural Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award to its first recipient, David Keyes, at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance gathering in Kansas City. This award recognizes leadership and dedication in advancing communities’ readiness to provide access to opportunities in the digital age.

Although one might be tempted to call all this the Charles Benton Memorial Tour, for me, it has actually been a listening tour – hearing not just about what various people and groups admired about Charles, but also about their concerns and priorities as the country considers who will be leading us in the years to come.

This year, I’ve been thinking about "Digital Deserts." Despite great gains in achieving universal broadband, a number of “Digital Deserts” persist in the U.S. Many communities and households still do not have broadband service. We want to offer policy recommendations that will transform these deserts into oases of opportunity, and connect them to affordable, reliable, high-capacity broadband.

I’m so encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to expand Lifeline support to include broadband service, making sure that millions of American families will no longer have to choose between buying groceries or paying for the connectivity that, for instance, allows their children to complete their homework assignments. But much more work needs to be done.

I believe that broadband is a key instrument in addressing economic insecurity. What we’re aiming for is a country where:

  • Every child, every Native American, every disadvantaged person, every rural American has equal opportunity.
  • We all have access to both wired and wireless affordable broadband -- everywhere and all of the time.
  • Broadband doesn’t divide us, but empowers us, brings us together, and helps drive the economy to close the wage gap.
  • Broadband provides jobs and educational opportunities so anyone can get ahead.

Charles was, and will continue to be, the soul of the Benton Foundation. He not only was our leader, but the representation of our values and the principles we intend to perpetuate.

In the year since Charles died, the Benton Foundation has only become more focused on broadband and on universal access and adoption. Having affordable broadband in our schools, our libraries and other community anchors, as well as in every home, is our goal.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director and Amina Fazlullah is the Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.