Voices for Internet Freedom, a coalition of advocacy organizations, hosted a public forum in Skid Row for Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Mignon Clyburn, to discuss with constituents of low-income communities the impact of affordable phone and Internet access on their lives.
“Today far too many Americans are being left behind when it comes to their ability to access affordable communications services,” said Commissioner Clyburn.
On 6th Street in Downtown Los Angeles last Wednesday evening, concerned local residents, activists, and policymakers gathered inside the gates of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) office. Lining the streets were tents filled with “unhoused individuals” as patrons made their way into the public forum.
“Unhoused” was the term used to refer to the homeless population by advocates, and current and former homeless people at the forum. Part of this population will be directly
affected by the policy changes proposed by the FCC to further limit access to the “open Internet”. The open Internet is users’ ability to go where they want on the web, when they want. This concept is also referred to as net neutrality, one that low-income Americans and communities of color depend on for access to educational resources, healthcare information, and job applications.
The evening took place ahead of a May 18 FCC meeting in Washington DC, where FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will push forward proposed policy changes that threaten an affordable and open Internet.
People like Marco Castro Bohorquez, a health and wellness activist who is also currently unhoused. Bohorquez shared that he was diagnosed with HIV and suffers from mental health issues.
“I used the internet to find a therapist to get the culturally sensitive medical attention I need,” said Bohorquez. “I have one therapist in Fresno and another in Argentina, so we use Skype [an online video conferencing service] to communicate.”
Bohorquez is just one of the many low-income Americans who will be further displaced by internet access becoming more expensive and less available in certain places. Sylvie Hernandez goes to the library to take advantage of their free Internet services.
“Without it, I wouldn’t have found the shelter I currently live in or been able to buy my ticket to get to L.A.,” said Hernandez. She reasoned that it would have been even more challenging to break the cycle of homelessness that she had fallen into if she did not have access to the internet and the various resources she found to assist her.
Educational information is another one of the major resources found online. Longtime educator Melissa Baranic has taught in schools around the greater Los Angeles area. According to Baranic, she has witnessed most educational resources, even online testing, turn from paper to online digital information.
“If I don’t assign online homework, I am holding my students back,” said Baranic. The majority of her students do not have the Internet in their homes. “It is a digital divide based on income and what parents end up having to do is choose between food for their children or Internet access,” she said.
In 2015, the FCC approved a policy known as Net Neutrality under then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. The policy ensures “that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.”
According to NPR, “the Open Internet Order helps to decide an essential question about how the Internet works, requiring service providers to be a neutral gateway instead of handling different types of internet traffic in different ways — and at different costs.”
The proposed repeal to the Open Internet Order by current Chairman Pai, will sway the power more heavily in favor of broadband providers to regulate the amount of access people have and what information they have access to.
“Less competition means higher prices and less innovation,” said Hernan Galperin, USC Annenberg’s associate research professor.
Galperin says he and his colleagues have found in recent studies that 50,000 people in the Los Angeles area have zero access to broadband service. Their research also revealed that White residents in Los Angeles are 20% more likely to have Internet access. Only one-third of L.A. residents have the choice between two broadband providers and the remaining have only one option.
“It is a predatory way to deal with already marginalized groups to make them more vulnerable,” said Bohorquez.
The organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, Steven Renderos, elaborated that these policy changes would also affect other programs like beneficiaries of Lifeline. Founded in 1985, the Lifeline program has provided phone service at a discounted rate to qualifying low-income consumers in an effort to ensure all Americans have the security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services.
“The irony is the people who need to be connected the most — students, health care patients, the jobless population — those are the folks least likely to be connected,” said Galperin.
This forum allowed people whose voices are not often heard to have some level of input on a pivotal proposed amendment that could further reduce underserved communities basic access to communication services.