A Conversation with Rey Ramsey
October 03 , 2011
"I don't want to hear about the digital divide. I only want to talk about the digital opportunity."
- Rey Ramsey
The Internet, once a tool for collaboration among academic and government researchers, has become an essential vehicle for everyday communication. But access to it is still far from universal. Rey Ramsey has dedicated his career to bringing network access to everyone, especially the disadvantaged. He currently serves as president and CEO of TechNet, a coalition of high tech companies dedicated to advancing the industry's public policy agenda. Previously, he was founder and CEO of OneEconomy, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing the power of technology to underserved communities around the world.
I sat down with Ramsey in TechNet's Washington offices to discuss what he and TechNet are up to. Here are some highlights of that talk, edited for length and clarity.
Stephen Wildstrom: You've spent a good part of your career, at TechNet and before that at OneEconomy, working on extended access to the network. How successful do you think you have been?
Rey Ramsey: About a week ago, there was an announcement called Internet Essentials from Comcast where they offered an information technologybundle: A computer for under $150 and $9.50 a month to get broadband. In our earliest days at OneEconomy, we dreamed that there would one day be a bundle offered like that, making basic technology more affordable to the average American. In 2000, when we started OneEconomy from a basement, one person asked me what would be our measure of success. I said a couple of things. One is when we looked at affordable housing and the norm would be that we included broadband. That is now the case. Another was when private companies would offer bundles much like what is now being offered.
SW: What is TechNet doing these days to further access?
RR: When it comes to broadband, there are a few things that we at TechNet are focused on. At the top of the list is the issue of spectrum. A lot of people don't realize that there is a shortage in this country, that the equipment we are all using gobbles up spectrum. So we have been very supportive of the [Obama] Administration in taking a look at new kinds of auctions that could be put in place to free up spectrum…. We were also very helpful in brokering a compromise to net neutrality so we could bring the sides together. Our rationale was that there are a lot of folks in the Internet ecosystem that need to work together, the carriers, and hardware companies, and internet-related companies. So, they began to work together.
SW: What do you see as the big challenges beyond spectrum, especially in terms of expanding access?
RR: I think it's a few things. At the top of the list is the issue of broadband adoption. We've reached the point in the country where 92 to 93 percent have some access to broadband. The question then becomes why are only 60-plus percent utilizing it? It's an adoption issue now, so we've got to look at issues around digital literacy, around the affordability of the connectivity, as well as the relevancy of the content.
These are all issues that folks are coming together to work on. The Digital Connector program is the largest of its kind, which was started by OneEconomy. It trains young people between the ages of 14 and 21, and their digital literacy corps is working all over the country training people. OneEconomy has been working with the administration, with the Reinvestment Act, in terms of getting money from the stimulus to expand the Digital Connector program. We've been working with partners at the Urban League and La Raza and other community-based organizations to do a train-the-trainer model. Cisco has been one of the early supporters of that program. There will be more programs. We have to bring the libraries and others in. Broadband content is very important because that makes it relevant to people. If we are going to ask and hope that Latinos come on line, then we need content that speaks to their aspirations and needs. Relevancy, affordability, and literacy are all very important issues around broadband adoption….
My motto is "meet people where they are." This applies in a lot of different ways. We have the mobile internet now, which is really important. We have to meet people where they are, with a mobile device, or in the home, or in school, or in a community center. Education offers the greatest potential. We have to think about the learning environment as an extended environment. It's not only what happens in the classroom, but the home and the school and the community all creating a learning community.
SW: Some studies suggest that lower-income Americans are more likely to access the Internet through mobile devices.
RR: The trends have been that way for a while, that blacks and lower-income individuals are accessing the Internet through mobile devices. That creates opportunities as well as challenges. In lots of schools, you can't use your cell phone. On the one hand, that's where use is going, but on the other hand, it's not really been an accepted device. So when I say extended learning environments and a connected learning environment, we have to think of the ecosystem of players and the ecosystem of devices to make that a reality.
SW: What do you see happening in education?
RR: You start with the proliferation of digital textbooks, so that introduces devices. More and more teachers believe that they need to expend the learning environment into the home and communicate with caregivers and students. More and more will come to see the notion of learning occurring just during a finite period of time doesn't make sense in the 21st century. And we need to bring the best instruction to young people regardless of where it is delivered. I see a day when you'll be able to come into a room and have a menu of a la carte training from different professors and different teachers. You see this already in colleges. I think some of that will trickle into K-12 education.
SW: What do you see as the big threats to the use of the Internet in the ways you would like to see it used?
RR: People have cybersecurity and privacy concerns. If we put too much of the emphasis on bad things that can happen versus helping people to safeguard themselves and be citizens in the digital age—how you use technology, how you safeguard yourself, how you maximize opportunities. If we lose sight of that, we will miss great opportunities and we won't maximize the full potential that this technology affords us.
We don't want to solve the wrong problem and put the emphasis and resources on the wrong thing. Very early on, when we started OneEconomy, I used to say "I don't want to hear about the digital divide. I only want to talk about the digital opportunity." I wanted to talk about the opportunities in health and education and employment, in starting businesses, those sorts of things. If we put as much attention to maximizing opportunities as we do in mitigating problems, we could accomplish a lot.
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