Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s start by setting some contemporary context for our conversation. During the recent week-long ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp [July 2020], you talked about your evolving view of the term “digital divide,” and later circled back to broaden those comments. Care to summarize that here?

I’ve been working in this arena all my life, with initiatives to assist the most underserved and underrepresented members of our nation…be it in education-teaching, in working with other pioneers in the field of distance learning to assure equitable access to learning resources, teachers/faculty, and participation, and when the Internet “kicked off” in the late 1990s, to help expand opportunities for wired and wireless connectivity for Internet access. 

When everyone began to call it the “digital divide,” it first meant—was understood as—access to technology and connectivity—be it DSL, satellite communications, or—as it evolved—“high-speed bandwidth.” So at that point it became clearer, as I worked in this arena, that technology and bandwidth are part of the solution. Having the financial means to acquire technology and pay for Internet access was another part of the equation. So I began using the term “the economic and digital divide.”

As I worked in this arena and helped to form the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, and organized annual regional conferences—“The Wireless Community & Mobile User Conference”—I became more aware, learned from others, that access is more than money and technology and connectivity. It became clearer that the telecom providers were not going to wire or provide connectivity in areas that did not produce an ROI, or where the geographic terrain is too difficult. These are referred to as underserved areas. So then it became a geographic, economic and digital divide. As the push for broadband evolved, as the FCC, cities, states, and our own California became more involved in policy and public awareness, I realized that the divide is a geographic, economic, racial, social justice, and digital divide. Today, not having access to the tools, the connectivity, the resources to participate fully in our increasingly digital and virtual culture, is a form of exclusion. It is a “locked-out” form of denying equitable participation in our democracy.

I’m going to come back to much of what you just said to explore it a bit more fully, but want to step back a bit for a moment. You mentioned your lifelong interest in this topic. Was there any one personal incident/experience that initially drew you into becoming an advocate for Internet access?

Yes: education and distance learning, I am a pioneer in that arena. When I left my home in New York City to come here for one year to help kickstart distance learning at the new university—California State University, Monterey Bay—it had written a vision statement (summarized here) that included “serving the most underrepresented people in our region and to use technology as a catalyst to transform people’s lives.” So I left my work in lifelong learning and as a Communications professor working with underrepresented urban residents, to pick up the banner, so to speak, of underrepresented farm and hospitality workers in this region.

Sounds like a great example of the “follow your heart” idea. What has been most encouraging to you during all those years of activism on this issue?

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had an amazing, fulfilling career that encompasses the education, business, and non-profit arenas. I did my graduate work in the 1970s on the Impact of Communications Technology on Culture—with the launch of the first communications satellites (1976) and its applications for interactive videoconferencing for education. This was the “beginning of modern distance learning”—as opposed to radio, one-way broadcast TV, and snail-mail usages previously. So participating in and watching how education, business, and nonprofits—particularly in the arts—began and continue to use technology and connectivity is especially heartwarming—though not without lingering issues. Moreover, I began working with one nonprofit [Loaves, Fishes & Computers] that focuses on computer refurbishing and digital literacy for underrepresented communities, and this, too, has been very fulfilling. I am Chair Emerita for it, and continue to envision its future and how we can assist for 11 years now. Also fulfilling.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).

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