Chairman’s Year End Message 2013

Chairman’s Year End Message 2013

The New Year is both a time to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of the past 12 months and a time to be excited about the future. As the Benton Foundation closes 2013, here’s what I’m most proud of – and what has me reenergized for 2014.

Slowly and in a very deliberate fashion, Benton has sought greater synergy between our news and analysis services, managed by Executive Editor Kevin Taglang in Chicago, and our policy advocacy in Washington (DC), managed by Director of Policy Amina Fazlullah.

Under Taglang’s leadership and collaboration with our Chief Technologist, Jeremy Isett, we’ve been steadily growing the news and analysis of telecommunications we provide for free to the field. Since 1996, Benton has provided free, daily summaries of articles from the consumer and trade press concerning the quickly-changing communications policy landscape. In addition to writing the weekly roundup which capsulizes the most important developments in the field, Taglang also edits Benton’s Digital Beat blog, with monthly contributions from former Federal Communications Commissioner and current Common Cause executive Michael Copps and blogs from other contributors. With the addition of Rebecca Ellis to the Headlines team, in 2014, Taglang will focus on creating new content and resources for Benton’s readers, much of it related to Benton’s major policy initiatives.

The Benton Foundation believes that everyone in this nation should be able to fully participate in the digital age. The work we choose to do directly impacts vulnerable populations – the millions of our fellow Americans who still have no access to home broadband and the millions more still not connected to high-speed broadband – services many of us take for granted. These gaps have to be closed. For that reason we have devoted staff resources to four areas that we feel can help address broadband access and adoption challenges.

I. Lifeline Modernization and Reform
For the past several years, the Benton Foundation has committed significant staff resources to help guide the reform and modernization of the Lifeline program, which provides discounts on monthly telephone service for an estimated 15 million eligible Americans. Benton has been working to see that Lifeline successfully transitions to support affordable broadband access. Director of Policy Amina Fazlullah has engaged organizations whose constituencies can and should benefit most from programs like Lifeline, and whose voices are not often heard. Lifeline has come under attack, with opponents pointing to waste, fraud and abuse and calling for the program’s elimination. Fazlullah has worked with Congressional champions, FCC staff, and a number of public interest advocates to remind Congress about the facts of Lifeline and to point to reforms the FCC has implemented which have yielded laudable results in weeding out duplicate discounts and other unacceptable and unscrupulous practices.

II. E-rate and ConnectED

In June this year, President Barack Obama called on the FCC to revamp E-rate, the Schools and Libraries program which reduces costs of telecommunications services, to help provide faster Internet speeds and wireless networks throughout their buildings and campuses. Since the mid-1990s, the Benton Foundation has been examining the role of the Internet in the classroom and we understand the vital role telecommunications can play in expanding educational opportunity for students, teachers, parents and whole communities, and improving educational outcomes. In the fall, the FCC asked for public comments, responding to a growing chorus of calls to modernize the program. In addition to filing comments with the FCC to build the case for modernization and expansion, we began a concerted effort to provide an online resource, ConnectED and Modernizing the FCC's E-rate Program, to help track developments in this debate. The service offers a convenient, “one stop shop” for links to the latest news, research, analysis, speeches, events, and FCC filings surrounding this new initiative. We're also looking at the enormous benefits of faster Internet in schools and libraries for children and educators, for rural America and bridging the Digital Divide, for anytime anywhere anything learning, for people with disabilities and more.

III. The Telephone to Broadband (IP) Transition

In December, Benton published The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities. In this paper, imagined by Benton’s board member, Jim Kohlenberger, the foundation identified 10 interrelated principles to help policymakers guide the transition from traditional telephone service to emerging broadband networks. In sum, these principles are intended to guarantee that all Americans will have access to Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled networks that are: 1) fairly priced; 2) offer a high quality of service with the capability of running essential applications; and 3) allow people -- regardless of age, ability, location, or economic status -- the chance to receive, develop and share content as well as use and create new technologies. The report highlights the concerns of vulnerable communities through the eyes of the individuals and organizations who work on a daily basis with children, people with disabilities, low-income families, communities of color, rural residents and senior citizens. The paper’s purpose is to help regulators make better, more-informed decisions about this transition by outlining a new network compact for the 21st century that guarantees that the public, not just industry, benefits from the migration to digital networks. Our recommendation is that the FCC considers a wide array of vulnerable communities that could be unfairly disadvantaged during this conversion because, depending on how this transition is done, these communities stand to benefit immensely or be disproportionately harmed. To read The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities and for more information on the IP Transition, visit The IP Transition: From Phone to Fiber.

IV. Broadband Adoption by Low-Income, Elderly Consumers

Forty-four percent of Americans ages 65 and older do not use the Internet. And these older Americans make up almost half (49%) of non-Internet users overall. In response to these striking numbers, Benton is continuing an initiative we started in 2012. Cecilia Garcia, now a Benton Senior Advisor, is working with Senior Service America, Inc. to design and implement a campaign built around addressing the issue of perceived irrelevance, and engaging seniors as peer coaches in one-on-one “tasting sessions,” to introduce non-users in our target population to the benefits of going online. This project will help connect one of our country’s most vulnerable community’s to 21st century communications technologies and the promises of the Digital Age.

Finally, in 2013 we began a transition to a new generation of Benton stewardship. Mid-year, our daughter, Adrianne Benton Furniss, became the foundation’s Executive Director. She and I will continue to rely on the wisdom and hard work of our Board of Directors, with the addition in 2013 of Robert A. Cohen and Austin Hirsch, the dedication and energy of our talented staff, and the expertise of our allies in the field.

We look forward to a challenging and productive 2014!

By Charles Benton.