RALEIGH – Matthew Bauer, a vice president at the Wireless Research Center, was appointed this week to the Federal Communication Commission’s “Communications Equity and Diversity Council.”
Bauer also leads the “Connected Communities” initiative, responsible for deploying broadband connectivity infrastructure and digital workforce skills and job training programs for the Wireless Research Center (WRC), with initial projects in Wake Forest and in Grand County, Colorado.
Bauer will serve a two-year term on the FCC’s Communications Equity and Diversity Council (CEDC).
He was appointed by FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who noted that the focus of the CEDC is making recommendations to the FCC to advance equity in the provision of and access to digital communication, with areas of focus in both urban and rural underserved communities.
WRAL TechWire interviewed Bauer about the appointment, and about the ongoing work of increasing equitable and affordable digital access and connectivity in North Carolina and in the United States. A transcript of that interview follows, and has been lightly edited.
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WRAL TechWire (TW): What are the stakes of the existing digital divide or the access/coverage gap that exists, both in North Carolina, and in the Southeast and United States?
Matthew Bauer, vice president, Wireless Research Center (Bauer): While the digital divide (WRC terms it the Digital Gap) is more acute in certain areas, there is no urban, suburban or rural area that is immune to the problem. Households in every community are lacking fundamental and basic needs to participate in today’s economy and society.
COVID-19 and the subsequent ongoing recovery has laid bare and exposed many issues with the North Carolina, Southeast and U.S. workforce as well as employment in general, with an outsized impact on our most disadvantaged and marginalized populations including women and communities of color. With huge job losses and many jobs outright disappearing, especially in the lower wage range (under $50K), America’s digital gap (access + digital skills) has been exposed as much more acute than previously understood. In addition, millions of workers (7 million just in August and September of 2021) either permanently lost their jobs and/or decided to leave their jobs (The Great Resignation) due to job/career dissatisfaction combined with low wage prospects.
At the same time, one positive knock-on effect of COVID-19 is that working in person became extremely difficult and many workers found themselves thrust into virtual work and required to maintain a digital environment for the first time in their lives. Now we find employers more open to the benefits of digital work, such as reduced overhead and more satisfied employees. Wake County, like many communities, finds itself at an opportunity junction to diversify its economy with new, well paid, resilient, primary jobs as a result of the current market shifts caused by COVID-19.
It is at this nexus of this problem and opportunity that WRC is directing all its efforts to bring forward a new playbook and approach for solving America’s Digital Gap.
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TW: How might we best think of equity when it comes to broadband access and affordability?
Bauer: As noted recently by Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, “inequality is the greatest harm,” and in America, the digital divide has been widely noted as the civil rights issue of our time [the late Rep. John Lewis], entrenching and accentuating existing racial and economic inequalities. Many of our political leaders have come to understand that the racial and economic gaps in America cannot begin to close absent a focused and vigorous effort to bring equity in access to our digital, information-based society.
More than 1/3rd of Americans cannot afford high speed broadband at home, 1/3rd lack the digital skills for today’s workplace and millions do not have physical access to high performance broadband [various sources incl. Microsoft, Reuters]. For decades, splintered national, state and local programs have failed to fix it. COVID-19 has made the world more technologically dependent than ever – whether for school, work, health care or leisure. Those without adequate connectivity or the skills or money are far behind.
Skills Gap: The U.S. continues to fall sharply in global Digital Skills rankings, now 29th globally. According to a recent global study by Coursera, out of over 100 countries, the U.S. ranked 40th in business, 35th in data science, and 30th in technology skills.
Connectivity Gap: According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the 37 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the U.S. ranks twenty-eighth (just ahead of Ecuador and just behind Mexico) in terms of the percentage of its home internet access with fiber / High Performance broadband (rather than cable or DSL).
Three other realities create a picture of the supply-demand gulf and huge opportunity to level the playing field that exists in the current labor market:
- High demand for jobs with digital skills with an estimated shortfall nationally in 2022 of nearly 3.5M “middle-skill” positions (require training beyond what high school offers);
- Too many of those who could fill middle-skill jobs lack the digital skills needed;
- The Region 12 existing / traditional job-training system is, for the most part, not suited to bridge these gaps.
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TW: How would you describe the importance of affordable, accessible high-speed internet?
Bauer: Like the railroads, electricity and telephones before, broadband is the next horizon and we must ensure that ALL Americans are connected, trained and participating. A U.N. panel in 2019 (co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma), defined broadband as a human right and the U.N. has directed that all households in the world be connected broadband as part of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres noted that the growth of the internet began with a “naïve optimism”, but inequalities have actually grown. He called for digital technology to be used for a “quantum leap” in global development, and for everyone to have access to the internet. Without a huge commitment and investment in digital inclusion, he said, conflicts and mistrusts will grow.
Internet use, broadband adoption, and even smartphone ownership have grown rapidly for many Americans – even those less fortunate. Yet sadly, the digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different [Pew Research] and resulting in significant imbalance and lack of digital equity. Furthermore, communities of color (African American, LatinX, and Native American communities) are roughly 20% below average in the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers in the United States [Statista].
Establishing something as a human right can be very subjective, but it is to say that to fully participate and get ahead in the year 2021 and beyond in America, digital access, training and affordability are table stakes.
TW: What can you tell us about the recently passed federal infrastructure bill, or the recently passed North Carolina state budget, and how either or both will impact the future of broadband?
Bauer: In terms of the infrastructure bill, it is too soon to say, this will be playing out for some time, including other funding streams including ARPA and the Treasury Capital Fund (part of ARPA) as localities and states are looking to figure out how to best tackle the problem, What is lacking is a national definition, playbook of best practices. Up until now, market forces have dominated our progress, or lack thereof, in this area – part of the reason America is so far behind most of the other OECD countries who have more national and coherent strategies. The answer lies in our midst but breaking through the siloed and disconnected efforts is proving a challenge but also an opportunity..
What WRC is focused on and proposes is a new playbook that combines improving livelihoods while lowering societal costs – this can only be accomplished by looking at the solution and opportunity as a Sociotechnical System (society + technology).
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TW: What are the strengths of North Carolina’s approach to broadband access and affordability, right now? Where could the state – or local municipalities – improve? How are business and corporate entities involved, and what role will they play in equitable access to high-speed internet in the state?
Bauer: With the increased level of federal investment and funds in process or to be distributed, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seize and solve the digital divide and create a new generation of knowledge workers while ending disconnection and cycles of poverty.
We must act accordingly. What the solution requires is a new playbook that focuses on equity, while improving livelihoods and lowering societal costs. All too often, the digital divide is regarded solely as a technical issue, whereas WRC’s framing is at the nexus of affordability, digital skills and connectivity. Our Sociotechnical System combines societal determinants with technology and training for a holistic view that connects the plan with targeted, measured outcomes.
A robust engagement of public and private partnerships will be needed to make meaningful progress as quickly as possible. We’ve already started collaboration with municipal, county and state governments, including Wake Forest, Raleigh and Cary. We are engaged with partners in state government including the N.C. Department of Information Technology and the Broadband Infrastructure Office. Other nonprofits and community organizations are also helping shape strategies to find solutions, including MCNC and N.C. Hometown Strong.
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TW: What does your selection to the FCC CED Council mean to you personally? What role will you play as a member of the Council?
Bauer: Personally, in many ways it is the culmination of my work over the past 20 years where I have been founding and operating telecom carriers and related businesses My specialty is building and growing organizations, and weaving cross-sector partnerships, to leverage the best of what companies, nonprofits, and government bring to the table which gets to the core of what the Communications Equity and Diversity Council is all about. In addition to my general duties on the Council, I will be serving on the Innovation and Access Working Group which is focused on developing and recommending solutions to reduce entry barriers and encourage ownership and management of media, digital, communications services and next-generation technology properties and start-ups to encourage viewpoint diversity by a broad range of voices.
Other economic development initiatives of the WRC include:
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