The digital divide in America — those who do and those who do not have access to the Internet — runs especially deep in rural New Mexico. Is it digital injustice or just the painfully slow development of the necessary infrastructure?
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, visited New Mexico recently. He confronted that question and a challenge on the confusing issue of net neutrality, the argument over whether some content providers can get favorable high-speed access to the network at the expense of other users. Though he spoke with obvious conviction, some audience members were unsatisfied with his answers.
After visiting Acoma Pueblo, Wheeler spoke and answered questions at a forum sponsored by the New Mexico Media Literacy Project and other organizations belonging to the New Mexico Digital Justice Coalition.
"Digital Justice" is fighting terminology. It implies that the lack of access is a political decision rather than the absence of resources.
Wheeler said he is committed to universal Internet access. The FCC has officially taken notice that fewer than 10 percent of Native Americans have broadband connectivity. What they have, he said, is unacceptably limited and expensive. Acoma, he said, has a library with 10 connected desktops, costing the pueblo an outrageous $1,700 per month. The system is left running at night so students can access the Internet from their cars in the parking lot.
Wheeler encouraged the use of an FCC subsidy program, called the E-rate program, which can help schools and libraries obtain broadband services at affordable prices.
His answers on the net neutrality issue caused controversy.
Wheeler said he is committed to an "open Internet" where nobody has priority based on price. But he opposes defining the Internet as a common carrier. He said such a definition might result in excessive regulation and market interference that would stifle innovation.
The "common carrier" definition would define the Internet as similar to the phone company.
Under Wheeler's predecessor, the FCC adopted regulations to support net neutrality, but the regulations were overturned by a federal court decision last January. New regulations are now in the rulemaking process.
Jason Marks, former Public Regulation Commissioner, was in the audience. Marks explained to me that the court decision was inevitable as long as the Internet is not defined as a common carrier, and that future regulations will run into the same obstacle. He didn't agree with Wheeler's reasons for refusing to adopt the definition.
The other issue of the day was that troublesome digital divide.
New Mexico's poor rural areas are really poor, really rural and really lacking in modern life's necessities. Internet access is the latest addition to a broader problem that includes bad roads, lack of services and places without electricity or running water. Part of the urgency around Internet access is that it could help solve other aspects of the problem, such as healthcare through distance medicine and education through distance learning.
State Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque), who was on the panel, referred to a bill he cosponsored that appropriates $50 million ($10 million in each of the next five years) for education technology infrastructure, the hardware needed to provide Internet connections for schools.
If we were rebuilding roads, we could be laying cable under those roads. New Mexico has a road funding crisis, remember?
Infrastructure is what we need, it's a logical investment at both the state and federal level, and I'm just as frustrated as anybody that the federal government's paralysis and New Mexico's lack of money are preventing it from getting done.
The issue gets back to economic development, which gets back to attracting and growing business, not investing in the rural places that are the heart of New Mexico culture but show limited economic promise. Around and around we go again. I don't think it's about deliberate injustice. It's about a need for new solutions.