Milano Professor of Urban Policy and Management Maya Wiley joins FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to discuss the importance of broadband access in both rural and urban areas, digital equity and why connectivity is now critical for individual and community success.

 ROSENWORCEL: Hello. Welcome to another episode of Broadband Conversation.

I’m Jessica Rosenworcel, a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. And this is a Podcast where we get to talk to some amazing women from across the technology, innovation and media industries. You’ll hear about what they’re working on, what’s on their minds and what they think is next for the future.

I am especially excited today because I get to introduce a brilliant friend and colleague, Maya Wiley. Maya and I have worked together on a variety of issues, in fact, we recently shared the stage at Teen Vogue and talked about everything from net neutrality to getting kids online so they can do their homework. She is big league. In fact, she was just named one of the world’s top 100 influential people in digital government. Now you get to hear how amazing she is.

Maya, welcome and thank you for joining me.

WILEY: Commissioner, I’m humbled to get that introduction from one of my heroes and I should say Q heroes so thank you for all the amazing work you’re doing at the FCC and we need you and we’re grateful for you.

ROSENWORCEL: Oh, thank you. And now that we’ve acknowledged a mutual admiration society I want to start with a little bit of background. You’ve got to tell us how you got to where you are today.

WILEY: Well, I’ll spare you the shaggy dog version because you don’t have enough time. But, you know, I started in this work because I was concerned about racial justice in America. And that may sound like a very circuitous route. I was working on things like access to healthcare, quality education, criminal justice reform for low-income communities of color, in particular. And when I founded a policy advocacy organization, the Center for Social Inclusion, well, we really focused on how do we dig into the root causes of racial injustice and start up solutions by not just focus on what happens after there has been some negative and horrible impact on a person or a community but really prevent those impacts.

We were working with a rural, black community outside of Columbia, South Carolina, on economic development. And one of the things that black leaders said to us including Representative Joe Neil (phonetic sp.) who is the head of the black caucus in the state legislature was look, we’re poor but we have the land. We should be able to do something in the green economy and there’s a green economy. There’s a need for alternative fuels. Why can’t we find a way to participate in that.

Now, that wasn’t something we were working on but in listening to the community and starting to pull experts together who had a variety of expertise’s and backgrounds it suddenly became very clear that, you know, a participant and a generator and an innovator in the grand economy you couldn’t do it without broadband. And they didn’t have broadband. So, all the ideas we could come up with around economic development and a green economy simply wouldn’t serve them if we weren’t fighting about broadband access. And it didn’t take long from there to get to the fact that urban communities as well if they were particularly low income and communities of color were highly unlikely to have the service they needed and service (indiscernible).

ROSENWORCEL: It’s interesting that you describe this as starting in South Carolina because you’re now in New York at the New School and you have launched what I understand is the digital equity lab and I’d love to hear some more about that lab and what you hope to accomplish with that initiative.

WILEY: It’s one of the reasons that I came to the New School. The New School University is a truly trans-disciplinary place where we have artisan designers. We have social scientists. We have policy thinkers. We have folks who work on management and social entrepreneurship and what that meant was we had a space in which we could actually think about society’s largest problems in a way that breaks down the silos between communities, community leadership an d knowledge and expertise and know-how and the other disciplines of expertise because, you know, when we talk about technology, when we talk about broadband access we’re not just talking about whether or not there are pipes underground, whether there’s fiber, although that’s obviously critical, it’s also what is it supposed to do for people?

So, one of those ideas we had around creating the digital equity laboratory was both a space where we could bring together just like we did when I was in my not-for-profit around economic development in South Carolina. But how do you bring together in a space everyone from people who are expert on their community to people who are academics and expert in all range of disciplines to say, we access the work together in order to innovate so we convened.

We had a wonderful conference in March and we’re fortunate to have your past colleague Mignon Clyburn but also city leaders and innovators and community members to actually think about things like how do we increase digital access at home.

The other thing that we do is applied research. And that’s everything from thinking about and doing issues developing solutions based on what communities are currently experimenting with, pulling those experimentations together with others. For example, in Detroit there’s the Equitable Internet Initiative, a really important local effort that we’re going to showcase in a case study on how at a hyper-local level communities are solving some of their primary access issues and in a way that also does it to include net neutrality. But that’s an idea that we need to actually figure out how to take the scale so the laboratory does some of that applied research to support those kinds of innovations scaling but also identifying them and the challenges and the things that will help solve their challenges.

And we’re also trying to produce the next generation of thinker-doers. We teach an equity course, a digital equity laboratory where students who are graduate students from across the university actually come together in trans-disciplinary teams and work on actual questions that government or communities are struggling with around digital equity. So, in that way we really collaborate —

ROSENWORCEL: What is so neat about what you’re describing is you’re not treating technology like it’s some silo on the side and that it’s reserved for a certain type of person. You’re recognizing that it is a necessary input to everything in the 21st century. And developing skills to navigate it is really imperative for communities to be successful.

WILEY: Absolutely. Demystifying technology and broadband access I think is mission critical and pulling it out of the shadows and to of this sense of deeply technical and an area in which you can only work on if you have — if you’re a software engineer. You know, we got to get out of that fear because the truth is that’s not how innovation happens. And actually critical, that folks who are technology engineers are actually informed by folks with actual experience in terms of where and how and they get access and how they want to use it and what problems it solves.

And I think if we think about technology in that way we’re also democratizing technology.

ROSENWORCEL: Oh, you bet. So, if you had to sum up what would you say about why connectivity is so critical to individual and community success?

WILEY: If I could sum it up I’d say the future. And technology is driving the future. It is, you know, as President Barack Obama had said it’s now become as fundamental as electricity or water. It’s shaping everything from our labor market and the fact that we’re a gig economy where we literally have 140 million workers in North America and Western Europe alone who are essentially self-employed. It can’t be self-employed without being on the Internet. It’s simply the way in which they are able to have a place in the economy.

We know that low income women and middle income women and, in particular, immigrant and black women have been driving small business development and jobs in this country.

ROSENWORCEL: For decades.

WILEY: For decades. But it’s imperative that they be on line for the success of those businesses. I mean, just look at Etsy. Etsy is an online platform for sales. It’s critical to women owned businesses. There’s even black Etsy for black women owned businesses. So, I don’t think there is any way we can understand anything that any of us have to do in society and any opportunity we have to be able to create for ourselves and our community without technology. It’s simply not — there’s just not a non-technological future for us. And, you know, your leadership on the Homework Gap I think has been so critical in framing this issue from the perspective of what kind of society that is so centrally focused on the importance of education can even imagine our students becoming successful if they don’t have the ability to do their homework which is increasingly on line as we know. So, anything that we have to do in society is now centered on technology.

ROSENWORCEL: I co-sign all of that. But I know that you and I talked about these issues first when you worked on behalf of the New York City government to expand broadband access. And I’m curious for your thoughts about public service and also a little bit more about expanding broadband in an urban city like New York and the special challenges in urban America.

We talked a lot about the ones in rural America. But I think it’s important to highlight that there are urban challenges too.

WILEY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think we — it was certainly a privilege to serve the mayor of the city of New York and the residents of the city of New York. And public service is central because I think there’s no solving the divides that we have in society without the active innovation of government itself and the way that government works with supports and keeps accountable the private sector on these issues.

So, one of the things that we face in New York which is very similar and frankly the rural communities is the cost of providing the infrastructure to certain communities. In the business models themselves of the large telecommunications firms are often insuring that we’re not getting fast, affordable service to low-income communities. So, we have a lot more in common in urban communities with rural communities and we have to stop this so it’s either or. All of our communities have to be successful.

And one of the things that we were able to do in New York is actually think about how does government — how does local government actually start to think about technology as a core piece of business for government. Not just from the perspective of agreements with private companies in terms of their permission to dig up the streets to lay their fiber which is critically important but also what does it mean to have a budget line in city government that says, actually there should be a capital expenditure line for broadband. And what does it mean to think about creating service in places we control as government.

So, in housing where we know we have a large number of folks who are part of that homework gap where we have folks, we really want to make sure you’re able to take advantage of all of the opportunities we hope we’re giving them through our schools. They didn’t have the authority to get on line at home so piloting and creating the service of broadband speeds for public housing residents in one of the largest public housing developments in North American, Queens Bridge Houses (phonetic sp.) has been something that we as a city based on our size can innovate and try to take the scale and help others think about how they can do it as well.

And, you know, I would say, you know, rethinking franchises, rethinking public private partnerships like we did with our pay phone franchises with Lincoln Lycee (phonetic sp.) where we actually thought about free hotspots and how we organize that franchise gave us the ability to create free wireless hotspots for super-fast speeds. Gigabit speeds. But also to negotiate it so that it was equitably distributed to residential communities who were low-income would also have that free service not just commercial corridors.

So, all of those are ideas that the city, many, many people in the city that I was privileged to work with helped bring to fruition and provide the seeds that I think can help us sprout the tremendous number of solutions that can work all over the country and be knitted together to get us to a different form of infrastructure that more people can access no matter how much money they earn.

ROSENWORCEL: Yes. No, I think what’s also terrific about so many of those initiatives is you’ve got the ability to take some of them and export them around the country where there are other low-income housing communities. Or there might be other public infrastructure perhaps not pay phones, but other public infrastructure that can be used to expand Wi-Fi and expand connectivity in so many communities including ones that may not have the density of a New York City.

WILEY: Yes, absolutely.

ROSENWORCEL: So, I have a few questions. I like to ask everyone at the end so think of this as a quick take on your internet life.

Maya, what’s the first thing you recall doing on the internet?

WILEY: I knew you were going to ask me this question, Commissioner, and I kept thinking —

ROSENWORCEL: You know, if it’s going to be embarrassing —

WILEY: I’m so old I don’t even remember. Literally, I think it’s email. Email was revolutionary. It changed my life and I think it was first thing that I did was literally get access to and send an email.

ROSENWORCEL: Oh, no shame in that answer.

What’s the last thing you did on the internet?

WILEY: All right. I’m going to be honest with you because I love and respect you.

I tweeted because I’m a Twitter addict.

ROSENWORCEL: All right. Well, I’m going to admit because I follow you that doesn’t surprise me.

And then finally and this is important. What do you hope the future of the internet and digital life looks like?

WILEY: I hope the future of the internet is as of a democratic accessible free space for us to innovate and communicate and engage civically across geography safely and that it is something that we’re all able to understand access and also fight to continue to shape it because it’s going to keep changing with time and with technology so we have to be able to continue to fight for a vision of the internet that we want that serves us all.

ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I like the sound of that.

All right. Before we go you’ve got to tell us where folks can follow you to keep up to date with what you’re doing.

WILEY: Well, I hope that folks will check out our web page which is Digital Equity Lab. Just Google that and you’ll get us at the New School. And you can also follow us on Twitter on @digitixlab. That’s digitaleqlab and to follow me on Twitter which I’ve already admitted I’m addicted to. It’s @MayaWiley.

ROSENWORCEL: All right. Thank you, Maya.

That wraps up another episode of broadband conversations. Thank you so much for being here and appreciate everyone listening.

Take care.


Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Google Play. Transcript reprinted from Broadband Conversation.