Hearing shows high speed Internet opening doors for the disadvantaged

At Tuesday's hearing on Why Broadband Matters before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, one theme that arose again and again was the power of high speed Internet to help less-advantaged people across the U.S. Of course, the problem is that people who could benefit the most from this technology -- such as low-income, rural, and elderly Americans -- are also the least likely to have access.

For example, Dr. Mara Mayor of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) testified about the vast potential of high speed Internet to keep older Americans connected with the rest of the world, despite possible mobility obstacles:

Broadband matters to AARP Members. High-quality broadband networks have the potential to make the world more accessible to persons over age 50, providing convenient pathways to the economic and social activities that are not only vital for leading comfortable and meaningful lives, but also for fostering and sustaining livable communities.

Mayor cites specific benefits like telemedicine, distance learning, and telecommuting for seniors who still work or volunteer, but notes that far too many older Americans can't take advantage due to lack of high speed access:

Simply put, the digital divide for older Americans remains far too wide.

In order to close that divide, Mayor urges the passage of legislation in Congress that would help expand high speed access all across the country, including the Broadband Data Improvement Act (S.1492), which was introduced last year by Senator Daniel Inouye, chair of committee that held Tuesday's hearing.

In another piece of testimony, Ray Ramsey of the One Economy Corporation discussed his organization's successful efforts to bring high speed Internet to low-income Americans, and the wide range of benefits they enjoyed. As Ramsey said,

"Broadband is a particularly powerful tool for fighting poverty because it minimizes problems of time, mobility, and geographic isolation."

The cornerstone of One Economy Corporation's efforts is The Beehive, a website devoted to helping low-income -- including non-English speakers -- learn about the ways the Internet can help them. The site, for example, helps poorer families with their taxes, cutting down on tax preparation costs and helping them get all the tax breaks and credits to which they're entitled. Ramsey said the site has been a big hit:

"The results have been dramatic.  Among them: 600,000 high school students have received help with their homework, 415,000 people have learned about managing diabetes, and nearly 1 million people have learned how to secure their computers and stay safe online."

Another way low-income people are getting connected is through their local libraries. According to testimony from Missouri State Librarian Margaret Conroy,

"Broadband technologies play an increasingly vital role in enabling public libraries to provide essential services to all, especially important for the "have-nots." Because so many people do not have broadband, libraries are trying to meet all of the new demands that our patrons need because we are the only institution that they can come to for access and information."

...

"By providing Internet access to the general public, public libraries have become the social and economic hubs of their communities, often times providing the only Internet access for many low-income and elderly people, students, job seekers, immigrants, travelers, and many others."

But many libraries -- especially those in rural areas -- run into two major obstacles to providing these important services: the lack of availability of high speed networks and the high cost of accessing them for libraries on paper-thin budgets. Conroy therefore recommends that Congress step in with legislation to help increase the availability of high speed Internet and reduce the cost to libraries.

It's clear that many disadvantaged Americans are already experiencing tremendous benefits from services provided via high speed Internet. Now the challenge remains bringing these benefits to those who remain left behind.

 

Hearing on "Why Broadband Matters" (Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation) 

American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) 

Testimony of AARP Board Member Dr. Mara Mayor (Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation)

Senator Inouye Introduces Broadband Data Improvement Act (Speed Matters)

Testimony of Ray Ramsey of the One Economy Corporation (Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation) 

One Economy Corporation 

The Beehive 

Testimony of Missouri State Librarian Margaret Conroy (Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation