My mother and father do not use a computer, never have. They do not pay their bills online, trade on EBay, they don’t own an MP3 player, nor do they use their phones for anything else than making essential phone calls to friends and family. They are, in a very real sense, “old school” and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

And that’s okay; they have deliberately chosen a more traditional quotidian life. After all, they are approaching their 70’s, are retired and they prefer to gather with friends, to converse around kitchen tables and to socialize in the most conventional of ways – at their leisure and in person.

Despite my futile insistence to convince my parents they have to get wired, they choose to ride the slow lane in the highway of life. But the ITC cannot choose to be as intractable as my parents.

- Daniel Garza

In many ways, I envy them.

Nevertheless, the rest of us do not have the luxury of living “off the grid”. We must adapt to a fast-paced, fast-moving, ever-connected world of business in which we must keep up with high-tech, modern advancements as the method of choice to do business and for some, date and even find someone to marry.

In order to fully participate in today's society, access to the Internet and technology has become a basic necessity one of the bare essentials of modern life. Those without it find themselves at a serious disadvantage.  

To be sure, the Internet and technology are so much more than funny videos or family photos on social media. It is an important tool used for finding and sometimes keeping a job; maintaining long-distance contacts through such things as real time video-calls with family and physicians; educational uses; managing on-line bills and accounts and to prevent fraud; making travel arrangements; mapping travel to and in new cities; downloading medical applications; and registering to vote in many states.  Many of these uses require a modern smart phone with true broadband access.  

Recall that FEMA even urged Hurricane Sandy victims to submit their claims using mobile devices because few offices were open and there were long lines for in-person assistance in the few offices that were.  

But regrettably, not everyone has access to the Internet and other related technologies. According to the Federation Communications Commission, there are 19 million Americans without broadband Internet access. Even in those areas with broadband, some families may find Internet service to be cost-prohibitive as it is often bundled with expensive television or other services. Or they simply don't have a computer at home.

The “digital divide,” that is, the existing gap between those who have access to telecommunications and information technologies and those who do not, has significant implications for historically marginalized groups, such as low income, racial and ethnic minorities, and those who live on rural and remote tribal lands. So, as an example, it is no surprise that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has found that African Americans and Hispanics lag behind in broadband adoption.

But unlike my parents, the “digital divide” borne by the vast majority of these families has not been by choice. Within the last decade, an interesting and rather logical phenomenon has developed in the broadband sphere with the potential to narrow the digital divide. A study by the Pew Research Center has shown that a growing number of those who cannot afford computers or broadband service are turning to smartphones as their gateway to online material.  Among smartphone users, young adults, minorities, and those with a lower income level are more likely to have smartphones as their main source of internet access.  

Similarly, one third of this population does not have traditional high-speed broadband access at home.  The study also shows that both African Americans and English-speaking Latinos are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to use their phones for a wider range of activities, not just to make calls.  These groups are less likely to have broadband at home, therefore more reliant on smartphones and tablets for internet connectivity.  The rise of smartphones as a means to internet access has already begun to alter the digital divide landscape and improve life for many underserved Americans.

Which is why the much-debated Apple vs. Samsung patent battle before the International Trade Commission (ITC) matters. The pending decision may very well exacerbate the digital divide.  

If, for example, Samsung products were to be excluded from the U.S. market due merely to their rectangular shapes and rounded corners, it may mean a confetti-strewn happy ending for Apple, but for American consumers it means consumers will lose choices in the marketplace. Samsung’s smartphones currently represent more than 26 % of the U.S. mobile market, and unlike Apple, they offer a broad range of mobile phones at various price and distribution points to provide access to those consumers who might otherwise be priced out of the market or who make a consumer decision for their own reasons.  American consumers deserve a relevant choice among widely available modern devices to ensure their participation in modern civil society.  If the ITC excludes more than 26% of the US supply from the market, what meaningful choice will these consumers have?  

Consequently, an import ban may become a story where the “have-nots” face increased risk of falling farther behind the digital “haves” as the higher cost of doing business and reduced choices will result in higher markups in prices that inevitably impact low-income consumers more severely.

In deciding this important case, the ITC must consider the impact on consumers, competition and the economy.  It must also prioritize bridging the digital divide in the public interest so that all Americans have ready access to the internet we all rely upon to fully participate in today's society.

At a time when our economy is fragile and many Americans are facing tough economic times, the Government should not effectively increase the cost of or restrict access to the internet, especially where it would impact Americans who are struggling economically, or who live in rural America.  

Despite my futile insistence to convince my parents they have to get wired, they choose to ride the slow lane in the highway of life. But the ITC cannot choose to be as intractable as my parents.

The importance of access to the Internet is indisputable today. Further disadvantaging whole segments of the American population would leave way too many behind, and even my parents know that is unacceptable.

Daniel Garza is the Executive Director of The LIBRE Initiative and former White House staffer from 2001-2006.

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