Keynote Address of
Commissioner Gloria Tristani
Federal Communications Commission
Hispanic Internet Conference
April 26-28, 2001
San Juan, Puerto Rico
(As prepared for delivery)
Hispanics in the Digital Economy:
Harnessing the Promise of the Internet
I am extremely happy to be here today in Puerto Rico where I grew up. It won't surprise you to know that I'm the only Commissioner ever to serve at the Federal Communications Commission who was born on the Island. In part that's why I've made it my job to speak up for Puerto Ricans and those Americans who come from insular and rural parts of the country, those whose voices might not otherwise be heard. I'm excited to be back here as part of the Internet Summit, surrounded by so many friends and colleagues.
The Internet sector of our economy is growing at a breathtaking speed, fundamentally changing the way we conduct business and interact both professionally and personally. The amount of web traffic delivered and e-commerce conducted each day is staggering. During the one hour that we'll spend listening to the next panel, 5800 users will log onto the Internet for the first time, and 300 million e-mails will be logged.
What does all this means for Hispanics? How can we make sure that Hispanics benefit from the Internet revolution when statistics suggest that far too often they are on the wrong side of the digital divide?
Hispanics will soon be the nation's largest minority group. As Hispanics grow in number and influence, the Latino experience in every aspect of the American culture -- from education to politics to e-commerce -- has increasing implications for the nation as a whole. I'd like to consider two questions today: How can we ensure that the Latinos share in the promises of the Internet? And how can we make certain that the Internet is equally open to Latino influences?
First, we must work to ensure that all Americans have access to new technology. The U.S. Commerce Department's latest report on the digital divide states that Hispanics in the United States lag behind the national average in Internet subscribership rates and levels of computer ownership. Moreover, although Hispanics have shown impressive gains in Internet access over the past few years, the Department's surveys demonstrate that over time, the gap in Internet subscribership has actually widened.
According to the latest report, 41.5 percent of households nationally have Internet access, but Internet access rates for Hispanics and African Americans remain just over 23 percent. While about a third of the U.S. population uses the Internet at home, only 16.1 percent of Hispanics and 18.9 percent of African Americans do so. Differences in income and education do not fully account for this digital divide.
Of course some U.S. households lack even basic telephone service, much less Internet access. Telephone subscribership in Puerto Rico, for example, ranks far behind the nation's fifty states, hovering around 75 percent, as compared to a nationwide average of 94.1 percent. The island's mountainous terrain is in part responsible for wireline's limited buildout. Having grown up en La Isla del Encanto, I am all too familiar with this story. But Puerto Rico figures aside, FCC data for the fifty states indicate that households headed by Hispanics have telephone subscribership levels below the national average.
Given all these facts, minorities must have access to computers and the Internet through schools and libraries or they may not have access at all. That is one reason why I strongly support the FCC's schools and libraries program, better known as the education rate or "e-rate" program. The "e-rate" is the discount off commercially available rates that primary and secondary schools and libraries receive on the purchase of telecommunications services, Internet access, and internal connections. Eligible schools and libraries negotiate with service providers for the best and most cost-effective package of services and then apply for need-based discounts ranging from 20 to 90 percent. Telecommunications carriers support the program by contributing a small percentage of their revenues.
The e-rate helps expose Hispanic and African American children to computers and the Internet. That early exposure will allow minority and low-income children to ride the promise of the Internet and gain the skills necessary to compete in a digital economy. I am proud to say that for the past two years, the FCC has funded the e-rate at the program's cap of $2.25 billion. And since the first year of the program, Puerto Rico's schools and libraries have benefited from over $ 191 million in e-rate funding commitments.
In the next decade, more than half of all new entrants into the American workforce will be minorities. We need to empower these future workers by making them technologicially literate. The next generation will need computer skills to pursue careers in the technology sector. That sector will be the core of the U.S. economy in the 21st century, and its employees should reflect the color of America. But computer literacy will also be important for careers in the social sciences, in teaching, and in medicine. Computer technology is transforming even nontechnical occupations.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) recently published a report entitled "Tech Savy." The report poses the question: how do we educate girls to become tech-savy women? The study concludes that we all need to work to change the computer culture - to improve its image, repair its deficits, and make it more appealing to girls and women. And it notes that the same sorts of changes may make technology more inviting to other underrepresented users, including Hispanics.
The AAUW report encourages schools to use computers across the curriculum. Using computers to support learning about a variety of subjects helps attract students of all backgrounds and interests. As the report concludes, children who don't love technology for technology's sake, may be far more interested in using the technology if they do so in the context of subject matter that is interesting to them.
But responsibility does not rest with educators alone. Hispanic parents must also embrace technology. And Hispanics must create a computer culture more reflective of Latino interests and values. According to Hispanic Market Weekly, Hispanic presence on the Internet has reached a level where it is now feasible to use the Internet as a Hispanic-advertising medium. In 1995, there were less than 25 Hispanic targeted websites, and by May 1999, there were more than 200. Spanish on-line content has also arrived, and AOL subscribers can now participate in Spanish language chatrooms. Popular websites include MiGente.com, a site dedicated to Hispanic cultures and perspectives that offers articles, event listings, chat rooms, games, and even free e-mail service. Another favorite site is eHOLA.com, which offers consumers a variety of Hispanic selections of food, beverages, movies, videos, and computer accessories. At last, a place to order Café Yaucono, so I don't have to bring it back from Puerto Rico when I travel! These sorts of sites give the Internet a Hispanic voice, and they improve the usefulness and diversity of the web.
As more households and businesses in Latin American and Caribbean nations access the Internet, the Latino voice will become louder. In 1999, Latin America showed more growth in computer connectivity to the Internet than any other region in the world. Morgan Stanley estimates that the number of Internet users in Latin America, including the Caribbean region, was 9 million in 1999 but predicts that number will soar to 37 million by 2003. Global players are already beginning to roll out Latin American strategies, with AOL, Yahoo, Ariba and Commerce One leading the charge. As Internet access costs, telephone rates, Internet service provider charges, and computer costs all begin to fall closer to international levels, the Internet sector of Latin American economies should prosper. The deployment of nine submarine cables in the next three years in the region should likewise help increase the bandwidth supply and spur competition.
Even as the Internet begins increasingly to reflect Hispanic culture, we must continue to change attitudes. We, as Hispanic parents, must realize that in order for our children to succeed in the digital economy, they must be tech and computer savy. We need to teach our children that technology is a field open to all sorts of people, not just the male computer nerd stereotype associated with those interested in computers. Young Hispanics need to see that jobs using technology are more complex and diverse than their stereotypes. They need to learn that careers in technology and careers dependent on technology are open to them.
As Hispanics involved in cutting edge Internet issues, you can help change the public face of technology users. You can lead by example and by mentoring, so that young Hispanics and other minorities will see that they can put the Internet to work for them.
The Telecommunications Industry Association reports that in the 1986-1987 academic year approximately 25,000 students earned bachelor degrees in electrical engineering. In 1995-96, less than 15,000 students earned the same degree, a number on par with the number of bachelor degrees awarded in parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies. Given that soon a majority of jobs will be in the technology arena, these numbers raise a real question. If we do not draw technical talent from all populations, will we run out of talent?
I'd like to challenge each of you to do your part to create a workforce -- and especially a technology workforce - that looks like America. If we are to make that vision a reality, we must focus first on the children coming up through the nation's schools. It is here that we will find our nation's future business leaders, our future computer scientists and engineers, our teachers and doctors.
Statistics today suggest that Hispanics are in danger of being left out. According to recent government data, Hispanic girls are dropping out of school at a far greater rate than any other group of girls in the United States; 26 percent of Hispanic girls leave school without graduating, as compared to 13% of African American girls and 6.9 percent of white girls. Only Hispanic boys have a higher dropout rate - 31 percent, compared with 12.1 percent of African American boys and 7.7 percent of white boys. Statistically Hispanics lag behind other ethnic minorities and whites in educational attainment and its extension, economic well-being.
We can and must begin to change these gloomy statistics, if we can begin to change opportunities. Programs like the e-rate help schools obtain Internet access and give students a first taste of technology's promise. By introducing computers and the Internet, we can excite students about learning and give them practical skills to apply in a technologically-dependent job market.
On a more fundamental level, increasing Hispanic access to the Internet strengthens our families and communities. If you are a Puerto Rican in the mainland and you want to read about the local news in San Juan, you can easily access the major papers on the web. The Internet bridges great distances and allows near instantaneous communication between loved ones. Personally I think of one of my Puerto Rican cousins who keeps in touch by e-mail with her son who is stationed in Okinawa. And e-mail is the surest way for me to keep in touch with my twenty-year-old daughter, as well as my relatives who are scattered from New Mexico to Puerto Rico to Spain.
The digital economy holds promise for the Hispanic community. We are consumers of e-commerce, entrepreneurs, and engineers. But we cannot count on color-blindness and profit motive to make our businesses a success and promote our youth. We must work together. This Internet summit is a great opportunity to do so. I hope that as you talk with one another, you will continue the dialogue about how you can make a difference in your communities. Remember that when you help Hispanic youth, you are doing more than helping individuals, you are helping realize the full potential of the Hispanic community and indeed of the nation.