Easily one of the most significant events of the past week in Washington took place on Thursday at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave. It was right up your alley, all about technology and innovation and how they impact people's lives. Yet you almost certainly didn't even know it happened.
The event was the National Broadband Strategy Symposium, organized by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), a Washington-based non-profit that promotes universal broadband availability and adoption. The proceedings constituted a gold mine of information that would help policymakers and the public in general understand the issues confronting the U.S. in general, and minority communities in particular, as the Federal Communications Commission prepares the National Broadband Plan it will submit to Congress in February. The shame is that the event fell so far under the radar that it took place in virtual stealth mode.
I'm no PR genius, but even I could see that the problem was the news hook on which the promoters hung the event -- what they called a "groundbreaking national survey" conducted by Cornell Belcher, the former Obama campaign pollster. This groundbreaker turned out to be nothing more than a poll of 700 African Americans and 200 Hispanics, and the key finding was that "only 42% of African Americans and Hispanics regularly use the Internet, yet they overwhelmingly agree that Internet access is critical to achieving success."
I spoke with IIA founder and co-chairman Bruce Mehlman the day after the event, and I came away from that discussion with the sense that the IIA-commissioned survey was hardly the barn burner it was made out to be. I was unable to ascertain anything of real significance revealed by the survey, and the 42 percent figure in the key finding was meaningless because there was no context. Mehlman couldn't say how the figure compares to, say, those for whites and Asians, and he acknowledged that there was an apples-and-oranges problem because other surveys that have addressed Internet use across racial and ethnic groups have looked at access vs. no access, as opposed to the somewhat vague and subjective assessment of "regular use." "We didn't, frankly, have the budget this year to expand our poll beyond the communities of color," Mehlman said, "to include a much broader cross-cut that might give us a comparison."
That's extremely unfortunate. With deep-pocketed members like Alcatel-Lucent, AT&T, EMC, Level 3 Communications and Nortel, IIA should not have had to cut essential corners. The lameness of the highly touted survey made it difficult for the press or anyone else to place a great deal of importance on last week's event, or to bother to go to the IIA Web site to get a download of the proceedings. Pity, since it may well have been the most enlightening encapsulation of the issues surrounding broadband policy and options that's been made available to date.
The highlight of the event in my view was a keynote by Rey Ramsey, founder, chairman and CEO of One Economy Corp., another Washington-based non-profit that aims to "build an on-ramp to the economy for those who are left out." Ramsey's message was that broadband deployment needs to be accomplished in a purposeful way that removes the barriers to adoption:
"Broadband is the most transformative communication tool, probably in the history of mankind. My big concern is that we will miss the opportunity to use broadband in a purposeful way. The big opportunity in the country is to take private innovation, and marry that with social innovation. And in that convergence, we find great opportunities to do all sorts of things to help us do our jobs better. Unfortunately, when we start allocating resources, the vast majority of resources are still spoken about in terms of deployment. We have to do things with deployment, and I applaud this Administration for putting a large infusion of resources into the deployment side. But there is still much to be done in terms of adoption. Ultimately, the issue is understanding adoption. The definition for me is when a person makes an informed decision to opt in. They're going to opt in when they see value-when they feel there's a value proposition."
Before any of this can be accomplished, we need to remove the barriers to informing the public about the consequences of a missed broadband opportunity. That we missed a key opportunity to do that last week is a mistake that well-intentioned organizations like IIA cannot allow themselves to repeat.