The Honorable Susan Ness
Federal Communications Commission
Institut Aspen -France
Fourth Annual International Information Society Conference
March 3, 2001
Collective Action in the Face of the Digital Divide
Merci beaucoup, Mr. le Premier Ministre.
It is a pleasure in this magnificent setting of the Fine Arts Museum to speak about the Digital Divide. Mr. Barre informed me during dinner that this magnificent building once served as a monastery.
That brings to mind the following story:
Seems there once was a traveler who was crossing the desert when his car died. Fortunately, he was just outside a monastery. He persuaded the monks to sell him a mule so that he could complete his journey.
The monk explained that the mule was raised in the monastery, and as a result it only understood religious commands. The command for "go," said the monk, is "thank heaven." To go faster, he told the traveler, you need to say "Thank heaven! Thank heaven!" And to stop, you should say "Amen."
So the man mounted the mule and said, "thank heaven." Sure enough, the mule began to move. Wanting to go faster, the man said "Thank heaven! Thank heaven!" and the mule sped along at a faster clip.
Emboldened by his success, the man decided to increase his speed, and so he said, "Thank heaven! Thank heaven! Thank heaven!" -- and the mule took off like lightning. But suddenly, to his horror, the man saw that they were rapidly approaching the edge of a huge canyon.
"Stop! stop! stop!" he yelled -- to no avail. Just as the animal's hooves reached the edge of the precipice, he remembered to scream, "Amen!" Miraculously, the mule stopped -- right at the edge. "Whew," said the traveler, "thank heaven!"
Well, I say "thank heaven." Thank heaven that access to the Internet and broadband technology is galloping along, but we need to avoid - or bridge -- any chasms.
Thank heaven that we have government, business, academic and community leaders gathering together in conferences like this one not just to discuss the problems of a digital divide, but to consider collective action to craft solutions.
The Information Revolution
So, one might ask, why is it so important that this extraordinary technology be widely available?
The answer is clear: we are in the middle of an economic revolution. When I became a Commissioner at the FCC in 1994, the public Internet and the World Wide Web were just being launched. Today, over 100 million people are online in the United States alone, with hundreds of millions more worldwide.
The Internet is fundamentally changing the way we work, learn, and play. The digital tools of this century have the power to unlock doors of opportunity for people everywhere. And all of us have a vital role to play - we must make sure that those doors are open for all, and not locked shut for some.
Indeed, participation in a new economy that is increasingly dependent on communications and information requires access to advanced technology.
It is appropriate that we are having this conference in Lyon. This city has prospered since ancient times due to its location at the confluence of rivers that form a network connecting Europe. Advanced communications are the rivers that will bring economic prosperity in the 21st century
The beauty of the Internet is that you can do business from virtually any location. Craftsmen in a remote village, for example, can sell their goods through a website that is accessible to people around the world.
Problems arise, however, when some geographic areas or demographic groups do not have access to high tech tools, and thus are left out of the communications revolution.
Lack of access could have a devastating impact on jobs, population growth, and economic prosperity. Lack of access can also affect a community's education, health care, and recreational services.
Of course, we should not expect a new technology to roll out immediately to everyone. There are likely to be some geographic or socioeconomic disparities as new services are deployed. Our job is to ensure that such disparities are short-lived. We have an opportunity to ensure that any gap today does not become a chasm tomorrow.
Indeed, I see the digital revolution not as a digital divide, but as a digital opportunity. The Internet did not create poverty. The Internet did not create substandard health care. The Internet did not create inadequate housing. The Internet did not create illiteracy. And the Internet did not create abusive conditions.
But - if we care enough - the Internet uniquely may offer solutions, previously beyond imagination, that can help address poverty, health care, housing, education and violence.
The question therefore is how can we all work together to ensure that communities do not get left behind. How do we facilitate access by all to this information treasure trove? How do we make sure that it reaches all areas of the globe?
Here is what we do not want to do. Governments should take care not to stifle the growth of the Internet by imposing unnecessary regulation. As a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, I strive to follow the law, but there is one that I try to avoid . . . the law of unintended consequences.
The Internet has grown exponentially with minimal government regulation, subject instead to the competitive marketplace principles of openness and connectivity. Each of us approaches the Internet from a different historic, legal, and cultural setting. But let us -- together -- take care to preserve the vibrant and dynamic nature of the Internet.
And there are other steps that we should undertake, together.
Our biggest challenge as government and community leaders is to identify and eliminate any barriers that might exist to the deployment of new technologies that deliver Internet access to one and all.
The amount of investment in telecommunications infrastructure today is staggering. I am delighted that companies in virtually all sectors of the communications industry are rushing to deploy broadband services that provide high-speed access to the Internet. Cable, DSL, satellite, wireless, and even broadcast broadband solutions are in play.
My role as a government official is not to pick winners and losers. Rather, we seek a climate that encourages all companies to invest and innovate.
Different broadband access technologies work better in different locations and circumstances. Wireless and satellite services, for example, may more easily reach consumers in remote areas, including those in parts of the world that are currently unserved by copper wires. If we are successful in unleashing capital, it is more likely that consumers will gain access to the technology that best meets their needs.
Countries can approach this goal in different ways. In the U.S., we seek to eliminate unnecessary regulation that may adversely affect investment and competition. For example, we are looking for innovative ways to make more spectrum available. We are facilitating the use of unlicensed spectrum which, with little capital outlay, can provide high-speed Internet access. We are encouraging the development of promising new technologies.
The US Congress is considering various tax credit proposals to facilitate deployment in rural and other areas that are at risk of not being served. And we at the FCC have expanded our universal service program to provide very low cost telephone service on Indian tribal lands, where teledensity has lagged well below that of other geographic areas.
Besides eliminating barriers, we have undertaken efforts to bring advanced technologies to communities. One extremely successful initiative is the E-Rate program that earmarks up to $2.25 billion per year in discounts to help link classrooms and libraries to the Internet. After three years of the program, 95% of public schools and 63% of classrooms have been connected to the Internet.
The E-Rate has played an important role in narrowing the digital divide in our country. We target greater discounts to those who need them the most - those living in economically disadvantaged and rural areas. Indeed, school districts in which over half of the children are low-income received 60 percent of the E-Rate funds. We also allow each institution to select the services the community needs to ensure the most effective use of the funds. The funds are collected from interstate carriers and distributed by a private sector board of directors.
There is much that can be done at the local level. Often, the best solutions are crafted by those closest to the consumer. Communities know firsthand the challenges that they face.
Last year, we convened a Joint Conference with our counterparts on the state regulatory commissions to review community-based deployment efforts and to identify "best practices."
We learned that entities like governments, schools, and hospitals can serve as anchor tenants to attract new services and to serve as a springboard for additional deployment. And we visited communities that successfully aggregated customer demand to encourage companies to upgrade facilities.
Also, the private sector plays a critical role in bridging the digital divide. Companies, of course, are the ones investing and innovating to deploy the networks that will bring advanced services to communities around the globe. Public/private partnerships offer great potential for extending broadband access to underserved communities.
One such community knows no geographic bounds - people with disabilities. Over forty chief executives of high-tech and telecommunications companies recently pledged to develop and market products and services that are accessible to those with disabilities.
Companies such as Microsoft are donating computers to schools and libraries. Intel's "Teach for the Future" program provides teachers with the training they need to incorporate advanced technologies into the classroom. And Cisco's "Networking Academy" is training over 180,000 students around the globe to design, build, and maintain computer networks in their schools.
I commend these and other companies that have demonstrated a commitment to provide access to the Internet and to broadband technologies. I urge others to join our efforts to expand opportunities for, and unleash the potential of, all people.
Empowering individuals and communities is part of what broadband is all about. Communities around the world are realizing that the Internet has the power to transform their lives and revitalize their economy.
Thank heaven. Thank heaven a person in a remote location can now be diagnosed and treated by a specialist who may be thousands of miles away.
Thank heaven a child can learn from a world of information - perhaps including access to the artwork in this extraordinary museum -- without leaving her classroom.
Thank heaven a person with a disability can communicate with others in ways that were previously unattainable, and
Thank heaven villages around the globe can develop new industries and remain viable in the Information Age.
We are here all with a common purpose - to create a bright technological future for every farmer, every factory worker, and every child. By working together, we can ensure that no chasm develops that stops our progress.