National Broadband Plan Seeks to Increase Civic Engagement
On March 16, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its 376-page National Broadband Plan, setting forth a strategy to expand access to broadband Internet services to millions of people. Chapter 15 of the broadband plan is specifically intended to make it easier for Americans to actively participate in civil society and hold their government accountable.
According to experts, broadband services for all Americans is “the” infrastructure challenge of the 21st century. Like the highway systems created more than 80 years ago, broadband is the next way to stimulate the economy, create jobs, and increase quality of life for the majority of citizens, advocates say.
More specifically, the Internet is an extremely valuable tool for individuals and groups to engage in advocacy, and ultimately, increased online access will strengthen the level of citizen participation in our democracy. High-speed access to the Internet enables more citizens to gain a magnitude of information, from the skills to use the information effectively to opportunities to engage with others in their community to solve problems. People can find information about government performance, services the government provides, and in some cases can even register to vote online.
In 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress directed the FCC to develop a National Broadband Plan to ensure that every American has "access to broadband capability." The broadband plan recommendations include faster Internet speeds (up to 25 times the current average), freeing airwaves for mobile broadband services, and putting billions of dollars into subsidized service for poor and rural communities. The plan is rather broad and includes increased public education programs to narrow the digital divide, ways to improve energy efficiency and health care, and plans to integrate broadband to improve economic conditions.
Notably, the FCC sees the connection between Internet access as a vehicle for meaningful engagement with government officials and the many other opportunities it provides to improve Americans' civic participation. The introduction to the chapter on civic engagement states, "Civic engagement is the lifeblood of any democracy and the bedrock of its legitimacy. Broadband holds the potential to strengthen our democracy by dramatically increasing the public’s access to information and by providing new tools for Americans to engage with this information, their government and one another."
Civic Engagement Recommendations
There are five recommendations within the civic engagement chapter:
- Create an open and transparent government
- Improve access to media and journalism, including increased funding to public media for broadband
- Use social media to increase civic engagement
- Increase innovation in government
- Modernize the democratic process through such means as online voter registration.
Good government advocates say these recommendations are commendable because the availability of government data will allow the public and advocacy organizations to more easily and actively participate in their communities and our democracy. The Internet has already become one of the primary sources for learning about and communicating with the government and elected representatives in Congress.
In calling for a more open and transparent government, the FCC recommends that all public information, such as those responses given under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as all legal documents, should be available for free online in searchable formats, as well as machine-readable formats. The plan also calls on government to improve the quality and accuracy of information given to the public, and it urges government to embrace new ways of inviting public participation and collaboration, including broadcasting all town hall meetings.
The plan recognizes social media as a growing opportunity to engage with the government and others, with social networking sites and the user-generated videos on YouTube as just two examples. The FCC's plan states, "Government must take advantage of these trends and adopt broadband-enabled tools to encourage citizens to communicate with government officials more often and in richer ways – and to hold these officials more accountable."
For example, a short YouTube video details some interesting statistics on social media and how it is shaping our society. It also compares other forms of media to demonstrate just how fast the social media sphere is growing. Consider that radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users, TV took 13 years to reach 50 million users, the Internet took four years to reach 50 million users, and Facebook added 100 million users in just nine months.
The broadband plan also recommends modernizing the election process. One of the simplest ways to be active in our democracy is through the ballot box. Nonprofit organizations have traditionally been active in ensuring the protection of Americans' voting rights. If the system was improved, it might alleviate some of the burden these groups currently shoulder.
The FCC report states, "By bringing the elections process into the digital age, government can increase efficiency, promote greater civic participation and extend the ability to vote to more Americans." The FCC questions a paper-based system for voter registration and recommends modernizing the election process with electronic voter registration, portability of voting records, and automatic updates of voter files with the most current address information available. The agency also suggests that the Department of Defense develop a secure Internet-based project that allows members of the military serving overseas to vote online.
It is not clear when the broadband plan's civic engagement recommendations will be addressed, but the FCC is scheduled to hold its next open meeting on April 22. Many of the recommendations will require action from the FCC, the communications industry, Congress, and other outside stakeholders.
The Need for Greater Broadband Access
Vigorous advocacy on the issue of broadband access and the FCC's plan has already begun. For example, the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) and the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) have launched a campaign that includes calling for universal broadband access.
Organizations have issued statements in support of the FCC's broadband plan, but many also have critical questions that need to be answered. The American Library Association (ALA), for instance, "applauds the plan's focus on a more open and transparent government. The use of the Internet to provide government information and services certainly enhances access to the government – for those who have ready Internet access from their homes or workplaces." However, the ALA notes a very important issue: "Access to government information and services is not as enhanced for those Americans without ready Internet access, especially for vulnerable populations. Many of these people come to libraries for broadband access and librarian assistance to enable them to obtain what they need from the government."
From raising awareness about important local issues to gathering people for community events, inexpensive and easy web tools are helpful ways to organize in communities. However, those without access do not benefit and are ultimately left out of the conversation. A survey by the Census Bureau for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration recently found that minorities, seniors, the less-educated, the unemployed, and low-income households are still much less likely to have broadband service in their homes. Universal broadband access would help to level the playing field for these communities.