Expanding broadband is critical for minorities

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The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) expected vote to consider regulating the Internet as a public utility would affect all Americans, but perhaps no group more than minorities.

Broadband has been a boon for minorities, particularly for those seeking to enter the marketplace. High-speed Internet has helped break down barriers of entry that have long kept minorities from starting new businesses. As Internet use has exploded over the past decade, minority entrepreneurs have been some of the greatest beneficiaries. From 2002 to 2007, the number of African American-owned businesses across the U.S. grew at three times the national average. And self-employment among African Americans rose by 26 percent from 1999 to 2009 — more than any other demographic. These successful businesses are a huge boost to the community, giving a whole generation a set of new role models.

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The expansion of broadband can largely be attributed to the investment private companies have made in our nation's Internet infrastructure. The nation's largest Internet providers have poured billions into growing and improving our country's national broadband networks. In 2012 alone, these companies invested over $50 billion into broadband, giving entrepreneurs around the country more access to the networks that let them build a small business.

Unfortunately, this progress could come to an end in the near future.

The FCC is currently considering whether to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, a decision that would have a devastating effect on access and availability. Other public utilities such as highways and the electric grid have long been plagued by funding shortages, so much that the American Society of Civil Engineers now estimates that our nation's infrastructure will face an investment gap of $3.6 trillion by 2020. The growing gap is already causing very real problems, with one-third of American roads now estimated to be in bad condition and an increasing number of blackouts on the electric grid annually.

Public utility regulation directly leads to such problems by dampening the competition necessary for more investment. Title II regulations were designed to rein in long-gone telephone monopolies — not the dynamic, competitive businesses we see today. A wide array of cable, TV, Internet, and fiber providers compete fiercely to expand access and provide the best possible service for consumers. Applying 19th-century models to these 20th-century technologies would stifle innovation and discourage further investment.

The continued expansion of broadband is particularly critical for minority communities. Earlier this year, a study from the Pew Research Center found computer use among African Americans to be below the national average, only 77 percent. Giving this community more access to a computer and an Internet connection will be vital in building the digital literacy skills in demand in today’s job market.

As the FCC considers its next steps, it is incumbent that they keep in mind how much minorities have gained from the proliferation of high-speed Internet. Now more than ever, we need to keep this vital economic engine going strong — not slow it down with burdensome and ultimately futile regulations.

Alford is the cofounder, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

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