Point of View

Don’t let monopolies widen the digital divide

July 1, 2013 

American commerce and innovation are based on one central fact: Competition begets progress. And progress is good for America.

I had the honor of representing the people of North Carolina in the U.S. Congress from 1993 to 2003.

During that time, we saw incredible advancements in communications technology.

As a result, Washington has been watching the “digital divide” to see whether minorities, rural and other economically disadvantaged Americans are being granted fair access to modern technology.

Recent data show that, within the minority community, more Americans are skipping over wired networks and rely on wireless access to the Internet.

As many as 76 percent of Latino Internet users rely on their mobile devices as their primary source of Internet access, according to Pew Research.

And there are 19 million Americans who still live in areas where broadband service isn’t even an option; that’s 6 percent of our nation’s population.

Whether the reason is physical access to the technology or simply being priced out of the market, more minority and rural Americans are turning to wireless options to access the Internet.

We forget, because of the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, that the first commercially available cell phone is 40 years old.

It weighed over a pound, cost $4,000 and did little but make calls – and then only in major metropolitan areas.

While this is a far cry from today’s opportunity to purchase a plan for as little as $20 per month, we are in danger of slipping back to a market in which only individuals who can afford the pricey plans and phones will have access.

Cell phones have evolved, and providers, in search of the competitive edge, have begun a new pricing war.

The result can be seen on every telecast of every sporting event in America: Our service is cheaper, faster, better than the other guy’s.

Prices keep getting lower, and services continue to expand in the infinite race to gain the competitive edge, but one thing threatens to halt the race: a reduction in the affordable devices and plans in the marketplace.

Later this summer, the International Trade Commission will decide a case between Samsung and Apple over whether Apple can “own” the shape of smartphones.

The shape in question is a rectangle with rounded corners.

If the ITC rules in favor of Apple, Samsung will not be allowed to bring its products to the United States, and consumers in search of 4G and other wireless broadband devices will have few options other than to pay Apple’s high prices, use only Apple’s pre-approved apps and subscribe to Apple’s iTunes store.

We cannot allow regulatory measures to put a population at a disadvantage based upon ethnicity, hometown or purchasing power.

Mobile broadband access does more for Americans than facilitate a pocket full of games and email; it is helping rural and minority Americans improve their health, attend college and keep in touch with loved ones hundreds or thousands of miles away – thanks in large part to affordable devices.

Thanks to mobile broadband, students in underserved schools are able to attend Advanced Placement classes via distance learning and download 1,000-page college textbooks to their mobile devices that are costly in hard copy form. And home-bound Americans are able to constantly monitor their health via apps that send blood pressure and glucose information directly to their doctors.

Smartphones are constantly evolving because of the competitive environment, and our consumers benefit from it. Lower plan prices and more affordable phones are making broadband more accessible.

Government is not in the business of choosing winners and losers, and it is crucial that it doesn’t start now.

The ITC should not alter the arc of progress and widen the digital divide; it must consider the effect its decision will have on America’s minority and rural communities and rule in favor of an open, fair and vigorous marketplace to operate in a way that is good for all Americans.

Eva Clayton is a former congresswoman from North Carolina’s 1st District. She retired in 2003 at the end of her fifth term.

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