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Broadband may become a civil right

Both broadband and civil rights were on the minds of some at a Dec. 14 Memphis, TN, town hall meeting. FCC commissioner Michael Copps said, " Universal access to broadband needs to be seen as a civil right ... [while] not many people have talked about it that way."

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn echoed that position saying, “I believe that universal access to broadband needs to be seen as a civil right ... I don’t think you can look at it in any other way.”

Echoing the Copps position was Benjamin Hooks, the first black FCC commissioner and former NAACP executive director. Hooks said, "Broadband is becoming a basic necessity." Both were speaking at a meeting held as part of a series the FCC is holding to develop a national broadband policy, which is due to Congress in mid-February.

Copps has long beat the drum of broadband being a “civil right.” Back on July 21, 2008, he said, “We still have much to do in making the technology tools of the 21st century work for every American. And I always underline those two words: 'every American.' Because no matter who you are, where you live, how much money you make, whether you are young or old, rural or inner city, healthy or dealing with a disability, you will need — and you are entitled — to have these tools and services available to you. I think it’s a civil right; I really do. The need to chart a path to the realization of that right is why we’re here today.”

Others aren’t so sure the mash up makes any sense, asking how broadband usage is any different from electricity, gas, or water? How about cable TV? Should all of these be “civil rights” too?

Copps’ early comments pretty much fell on deaf ears when they were then part of the Kevin Martin FCC era. However, now that the hope and change crowd is in charge, “civil rights” and “broadband” are increasingly being used in the same sentence.

The Pew Research Center just released its research of broadband adoption. It showed that 2009 was a better year for broadband adoption by those with previously below average usage rates.

The report states, “The greatest growth in broadband adoption in the past year has taken place among population subgroups which have below average usage rates.

Among them:

• Senior citizens: Broadband usage among adults ages 65 or older grew from 19 percent in May 2008 to 30 percent in April 2009.

• Low-income Americans: Two groups of low-income Americans saw strong broadband growth from 2008 to 2009.

• Respondents living in households whose annual household income is $20,000 or less saw broadband adoption grow from 25 percent in 2008 to 35 percent in 2009.

• Respondents living in households whose annual incomes are between $20,000 and $30,000 annually experienced a growth in broadband penetration from 42 percent to 53 percent.

Overall, respondents reporting that they live in homes with annual household incomes below $30,000 experienced a 34 percent growth in home broadband adoption from 2008 to 2009.”

Some have characterized the lack of broadband adoption as primarily a cost and availability issue. However, the Pew research showed:

Of those using dial-up or nonbroadband users:

• 50 percent say the Internet is not relevant, they are too busy, or they are not interested.

• 19 percent say broadband is “too expensive” or they don’t have a computer.

• 17 percent say broadband is not available.

• 13 percent say broadband is too difficult, a waste of time, or they are too old or unable to use it.

We’ll know how far broadband and civil rights may be intermingled when Genachowski releases the FCC’s official broadband plan next month.