Finding Ways to Reach Minorities With Broadband

The Internet
Alliance, a coalition of think tanks, nonprofits
and companies focused on universal broadband deployment -- from AT&T to the
National Education Association -- has named a new co-chairman, David Sutphen.

If the name is
familiar, that's because he is the former senior vice president of government
relations for Viacom. Before that, he held a similar lobbying post with the
Recording Industry Association of

One of the alliance's
goals is to boosting broadband adoption for minority populations that lag
behind other groups in broadband use. That will be in the sweet spot for
Sutphen, who is also former general counsel to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy
(D-Mass.), handling civil rights and telecom matters.

He spoke with Multichannel News Washington bureau
chief John Eggerton about broadband adoption, network neutrality and the gap
between the $350 billion it could cost to roll out an "ideal" broadband network
and the just more than $7 billion the government has invested of its own money
to date.

MCN: Give us the short answer on what the
alliance is all about.

David Sutphen: We're
companies and nonprofits that believe broadband should be, and is, a priority
for the country. When the organization was started five years ago, not a lot of
people were talking about broadband. Fast-forward five years, and it is hard to
think of a policy discussion, whether it is health care or the environment or
education, where broadband isn't a core component of what people are hoping to

We are doing an event Dec. 10 at the Newseum [in Washington],
a symposium that will focus on the impact of broadband in underserved
communities, with a particular focus on communities of color. We will be
putting out some original research that touches on issues like, ‘Is wireless
the bridge over the digital divide? And what are some of the applications that
are driving adoption by communities of color.

There is still a disconnect between access and adoption.

MCN: Is wireless the bridge?

DS: I think if
you look at the numbers, there is some reason to believe that it could be.

Communities of color oversubscribe compared to the broader
population in terms of the adoption of wireless. One of the things I have been
saying is we need to delve a little more deeply into some of these issues.

You have about 10 million Americans who don't have access to
any broadband currently. And then there is a universe that has access but for
whatever reason, about 40% of them don't adopt.

One of things we are going to talk about at this conference
is what are the things that are encouraging African Americans and Latinos to
adopt broadband through wireless platforms at a much quicker pace than wireline.

MCN: You talk about underserved, but coming to
the cable side, you understand that cable operators want the government to take
care of unserved populations first.

DS: The emphasis
in IIA recommendations has been that the focus initially should be on areas
where there is no connection whatsoever, whether there is a market failure
because you can't get a reasonable return on investment or because there just
hasn't been attention paid to it. At the end of the day, the first priority I
would think would be those who have no connection whatsoever.

MCN: And is the second priority adoption?

DS: I think that
goes to the point of doing an assessment, and I presume this will be part of
what the national broadband plan encompasses as well, to get an understanding
of why people don't adopt.

I get the sense that some of the people who don't adopt are
afraid of the technology because maybe they are slightly older and they don't
understand it, and there is probably a universe of people who have serious
concerns about their privacy and security. That might be preventing them from
adopting it.

I think there is an ecosystem of reasons and I think there
is probably more that could be done for those communities that have access to
get it.

MCN: There have been several groups
representing minorities who have argued that the FCC's network-neutrality
proposal could be a disincentive to adoption.

DS: If you look
at the debate on network neutrality -- I played soccer growing up, I don't know
if you have ever seen kids play soccer [but] everyone kind of gravitates to the
ball regardless of where the ball is on the field. IIA is having a different

At the end of the day, the network-neutrality conversation
is about people who are already connected. It's not about the people who aren't
already connected. So, is it a fair question to ask about the impact on the
digital divide? Yes.

But at the end of the day, our goal is to talk about what is
happening in these communities, why aren't they adopting, and where is the
investment going to come from going forward.

The [Obama] administration is the one that came out with the
figure of needing close to $350 billion to build out the kind of broadband
capability that we want ideally in the nation over the next five to eight
years. We know there is $7 billion in the stimulus money. That is a big gap.
So, another big question is where that investment is going to come from?

We just need to make sure that, whatever happens -- whether
it is in the context of the broadband plan or the context of net neutrality -
that we don't end up in a situation in which we don't have those kinds of
investments and the digital divide ends up growing.

MCN: The National Telecommunications &
Information Administration asked for input last week on how better to hand out
broadband stimulus money. Any thoughts?

DS: I'm not sure
I have been here long enough to suggest to NTIA
how to do its job better. To their credit, I think they have been very
deliberate in listening to the feedback they have gotten.

There is no magic formula to making sure you invest limited
resources in programs and initiatives that are working. There is no magic
formula when you work in government because there is clearly always a ton of
need and an insufficient amount of resources. But they are collecting the kind
of information they need to make some thoughtful decisions, and hopefully ones
that will enable additional investment capital, which more likely than not
going to end up coming from the private sector, to leverage on top of that.

MCN: How does your cable background help you
with this job?

DS: For years,
the Internet and technology were perceived of as a platform for tension and
conflict between industries. When I was at the RIAA, the sense was that there
was no common ground between service providers, regardless of the technology
they are using, and content companies. And yet, you look and, as time has
progressed, you see what an interconnected ecosystem technology and broadband
is and that everyone really does have a vested interest in figuring out how to
create an environment in which consumers can get access to that dynamic,
engaging content, legally in a safe environment.

Those are shared common goals. For those who say that,
whatever the issue, you can't find common ground or there aren't ways to serve
the needs and desires of the consumer and also insure that you've got
industries that are continuing to invest and grow, I don't buy into that.

I think history has shown that. It may take longer,
sometimes, than people want. But at the end of the day, there is a mutually
shared view, and path, to going where everybody wants to go, which I think we
are on.  I think we have made a lot of
progress in the past five or six years.

I used to travel and not care much about whether the hotel I
was staying at didn't have a broadband connection or Wi-Fi. Now, I make hotel
decisions in part on whether I have access to the Internet. whether that is to
check news or watch something on Hulu, or see what happened in the Colts-Patriots

MCN: What kind of speeds will be necessary to
handle all those educational and health applications?

DS: I think that
is where the $350 billion figure comes from. That is the top line, where you
create an efficient system for delivering a real-time telemedicine consult over
a broadband connection. If you multiply that out across the country, that is
where that $350 billion figure comes from.

At the end of the day, you need to make sure that you are
not leaving anybody behind. If we end up in a situation in which we just continue
to provide more and more opportunities for those who are already on and don't
solve the problem for those who aren't on, I think that as FCC chairman Julius
Genachowski alluded to, it is just going to exacerbate things like the digital
divide, whether you define that in terms of communities of color or anybody who
happens to not be connected.

On the one hand, you need to make sure you get everybody
into the game, and then insure you have in place the right kind of policy and
regulatory frameworks so that you continue to have the investment that you
need. I would be surprised if the $343 billion gap is going to filled even in
small part by federal investment.

MCN: Do you have any confidence that it will
come from the private sector?

DS: I think there
has already been billions invested by private industry to build out the
network. I don't think we would be where we are today with 90% of the

MCN: Sorry, I meant the broadband stimulus grant/loan program?

DS: The reality is that government often times looks at places
where they feel, for whatever reason, that the market has not achieved what
folks might have hoped it would in that area. So, if you've got really, really
rural areas with no connection, it probably does make sense that that should be
where the initial emphasis of that $7 billion goes, but I don't think that
means companies aren't going to continue to invest. I just think we need to
make sure we have an environment in which that makes sense.

It took something like 55 years for automobiles to get
to 25% of the population, and over 40 years for electricity. In less than a
decade, we have managed to get broadband availability to 90% of the population.
That is a pretty impressive track record. Let's just hope those trends

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.