Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

How Congress Can Bridge America's Digital Divide | Commentary

I have long believed the Internet is an empowerment tool, providing access to information that was once more readily available to a few. This is especially true for minority and rural communities. And through a combination of considerable private investment and prudent public policies, the percentage of Americans with access to high-speed broadband quadrupled in just the past four years alone.

However, lawmakers, especially members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology who are meeting this week, must be mindful that freeing up wireless spectrum is essential to reaching fuller broadband adoption and meeting growing consumer demand.

Few have done more on the issue of broadband adoption than acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who took on this issue in the first days of her tenure at the commission. Although history will undoubtedly remember her as the first woman and the first African-American woman to lead the agency, her work to bridge the digital divide in this country will be the true hallmark of her legacy.

Clyburn has long recognized that broadband adoption presents an important opportunity to enhance some of the most basic tenets of our society — economic opportunity for all and access to quality health care and education. It is for those reasons she has worked to close the gap between those who have access to broadband Internet service and those who do not. Her work has contributed to a story of success that more and more Americans are now able to share.

According to a recent Pew Center survey, 78 percent of Latinos and African-Americans use the Internet — an increase over 2009 levels. The same survey found that a growing share of Latinos and African-Americans are increasingly accessing the Internet on their cellphones and other mobile devices. Additionally, a new White House report found that the percentage of American homes served by high-speed broadband networks has risen dramatically to more than 80 percent — a fourfold increase since 2009. And in rural communities, high-speed mobile broadband network coverage is improving as national wireless companies are partnering with rural carriers by leasing them precious wireless spectrum to build their own networks.

As a result, we’re seeing broadband and mobile networks play a larger, more meaningful role in more Americans’ lives. Today, the wealth of knowledge that exists in this world can be accessed by a student with an iPad. And rather than relying on the dated classroom encyclopedia, students today can reach beyond their schools’ limited resources by tapping into the online tools, information sources and richer content that professionals and researchers use every day.

While there is still work to be done to close the narrowing digital divide more completely, we have made tremendous progress through the years. But, we may risk jeopardizing that progress if we do not hasten efforts to make more spectrum available to wireless providers.

Spectrum fuels the mobile devices and services Americans are relying on more and more in their everyday lives. Unfortunately, the majority of the best spectrum for that use is currently owned by various government agencies and used inefficiently.

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