Where We Go From Here

The Benton Foundation remains dedicated to closing the digital divide and supporting digital inclusion, so everyone can participate fully in a diverse media system and in our democracy

The Benton Foundation suffered a great loss in 2015 when, as many readers know, we lost our founder and chairman, Charles Benton, to a battle with cancer. For many people, Charles was the foundation. Gene Kimmelman of Public Knowledge said Charles “worked tirelessly to ensure that the poor, the elderly, communities of color, and other vulnerable and traditionally marginalized communities would not be excluded from the digital future.” Anyone who met Charles soon learned he cared about people and the impact that education and communications have on improving lives and making the world a better place. As all of us at the foundation dealt with our personal loss this year, we moved forward together to honor Charles’ lifetime of work.

The Benton Foundation remains dedicated to closing the digital divide and supporting digital inclusion, so everyone can participate fully in a diverse media system and in our democracy. With this goal in mind, here are the areas the foundation devoted our efforts to in 2015.

Universal Access, Adoption and Use

If we are to realize a truly inclusive digital society, we must ensure that affordable telecommunications networks reach everywhere and that people have the skills needed to make use of them. The advances we read about everyday – like the Internet of things and smart cities – have the potential to improve the lives of everyone, but they also have the potential to exasperate traditional divides between the people and communities who can access, afford and adopt these tools and those who can’t. With an eye on the most vulnerable communities in society, the Benton Foundation advocates for affordable broadband at school, in the library and other community anchors, and for every residence.

For many years, Benton has been a leading advocate for improving the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program and allowing the program’s low income recipients to opt for support for broadband, not just basic telephone connections. These efforts, led by our Director of Policy Amina Fazlullah and coalition partners throughout the country, should bear fruit in early 2016. Special thanks to the wise legal counsel we received from Andrew Jay Schwartzman, the Benton Senior Counselor, who is entering his third year at the Communications and Technology Law Clinic at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation.

In order to inform the broadband access and adoption debate, we have embarked on a program to publish and highlight new research, providing policymakers and advocates the information resources they need to seek policy solutions that support the values of access, diversity and equity.

New Benton Faculty Research Fellow - Connecting Policymakers, Advocates and Researchers

In August, the Benton Foundation welcomed Dr. Colin Rhinesmith as our new Benton Faculty Research Fellow. In this role, Dr. Rhinesmith will conduct original Benton research as well as advise the foundation on new research opportunities. In his first effort, Dr. Rhinesmith identified four essential activities that are necessary for local digital inclusion efforts. In conversations with, and observations of, eight digital inclusion organizations across the U.S., Dr. Rhinesmith, an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma, found that in order to help low-income individuals and families adopt broadband in ways that are most appropriate to their personal needs and contexts, local organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband; 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and service; 3) Making low-cost computers available; and 4) Operating public access computing centers. Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives is available online.

We published Digital Inclusion Project: Findings and Implications, A Canadian Perspective by researchers Michael Haight and Anabel Quan-Haase from Western University in Canada. Their qualitative research found that although large-scale surveys often identify lack of interest to be a major barrier to broadband adoption, for many people this issue relates directly to other barriers like cost, lack of digital literacy, lack of confidence, and little understanding of what kinds of activities the Internet can facilitate.

Finally, we highlighted new research by Brian Whiteacre and Colin Rhinesmith, Broadband Un-adopters. An important but understudied aspect of the current broadband adoption situation is households that once had Internet connectivity but no longer do. These households, termed “un-adopters,” comprised 12% of all non-adopting households as of 2013. In comparison with their “never-adopter” counterparts, un-adopters are significantly more likely to cite cost, the potential to use the Internet elsewhere, and the inadequacy of their computer as reasons for their discontinued use.

Our hope is that these three papers will inform the FCC’s efforts to modernize the Lifeline program and, along with other publishing efforts we are undertaking in 2016, boost broadband adoption and digital inclusion efforts moving forward.

In July, Benton and Gig.U published a comprehensive guide for communities who want better broadband for their residents and businesses. The Next Generation Connectivity Handbook: a Guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable Abundant Bandwidth builds on the experience of 25 Gig.U communities and is an indispensable tool in lowering the initial, daunting information barrier for cities just beginning to navigate these critical Internet infrastructure issues. The Handbook addresses the most common questions Gig.U received throughout its work with a wide variety of communities. It includes resources on topics such as economic impact, legal and financing issues, the trade-offs of different approaches, political challenges, and the core equation underlying the negotiating strategy with private parties. “When we started Gig.U four years ago, there were few models for communities who wished to assure that bandwidth would not be a constraint to economic growth and social progress for their homes and enterprises,” said Blair Levin, a founder of Gig.U and one of the Handbook’s co-authors. “Thanks to the heroic efforts of leaders in a number of Gig.U and other communities, there are now numerous examples that create a map for those who wish to seek a similar advantage for their own community.”

We will delve further into the efforts of communities to shape their broadband futures in 2016 when we publish a business strategy and legal guide on public-private partnerships from CTC Technology & Energy and Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide.

2016 and Beyond

Although Charles Benton is gone, the foundation will honor him as the spirit of our mission moving forward. We will continue to serve our field as it strives to ensure media and telecommunications enhance American democracy.

  • We believe in access to the latest, most powerful communications technologies and making sure they are available and affordable to all Americans.
  • In seeking diversity, we promote public discourse and the free exchange of information and viewpoints, because the synergy of ideas leads us to better solutions.
  • We work to achieve equity so that we all have the same opportunity to make our lives and our country better, overcoming differences and history that have created barriers to full participation.

As the sum of many parts, the foundation is grateful for the calming and sage presence of Leonard Schrager, a longtime family friend and Trustee of the Foundation, who has graciously agreed to serve as the Chair of the Benton Foundation Board. Leonard has been a leader in the Chicago legal community for more than 30 years. Throughout his career, Schrager has served the legal community and received many awards for promoting public interest law, and the values of pro-bono and public service in the legal profession. Leonard’s long history with the foundation and the Benton family makes him the ideal successor to Charles. He has been a staunch supporter of our mission and agenda throughout his 34+ years of service as a Trustee.

The contributions of our extraordinarily talented and loyal staff and Board of Directors were paramount to our efforts in 2015. Charles relied heavily upon these hardworking and gifted people, and he valued them because, as he would say, they got it. I share his enthusiasm and am enormously thankful for the support the staff and board have given to the Benton family during this difficult year.

Last, but certainly not least, we value the partnerships the Foundation has. We know you share Charles’ vision, and we hope you will continue to help us build on his legacy.

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

By Adrianne B. Furniss.