As a leader in the aging space, the FCC turned to Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP to convene a group of invitees to participate in a virtual listening session about digital discrimination and older adults.
The June 30th listening session, hosted by the FCC’s Task Force to Prevent Digital Discrimination was designed to gain additional information and understanding from affected communities, state, local, and Tribal governments, public interest advocates, and providers about their experiences – including challenges and barriers faced – as they work to ensure all people benefit from equal access to broadband.
The Task Force is charged with creating rules and policies to combat digital discrimination, and at the direction of Congress oversees FFC efforts to develop model policies and best practices that state and local governments could adopt to help prevent digital discrimination in their communities. Task Force members participating in the session included D’wana Terry, Special Advisor to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel; FCC Deputy Managing Director Sanford Williams, and Alejandro Roark, Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, who moderated the session.
“We are excited to gather together people with deep experience in the field who understand what older adults face in terms of digital discrimination,” said OATS Executive Director Tom Kamber, who spoke at the session. “I want to offer special thanks to our representatives from the FCC who are in the midst of a historic upgrade of our nation’s telecommunications regulatory system. The FCC is far ahead of where it used to be in terms of digital mapping and transparency but there is still a lot of work to do to address age-related digital disparities. The inspirational group of people who are here today are dedicated to making real progress.”
The other distinguished panelists were Davis Park, Vice President, Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, Front Porch; Barbara Witte-Howell, San Antonio Commission on Elderly Affairs; Michelle H. Norris, Executive Vice President of External Affairs, National Church Residences; Tim Morstad, AARP. Government Affairs Director, CSN-GA Financial Sec & Livable Com, and Darcy Connors, Executive Director of SAGEServes.
Witte-Howell said that broadband is the most important factor in addressing the social isolation of older adults, which is the biggest driver of physical and mental health issues. Common barriers to broadband use are lack of connectivity, equipment and skills training, and resources to pay for broadband. Park and Howell told Task Force members that cultural and language barriers also present major challenges for older adults.
Morstad, addressing FCC rulemaking, said that now is the time to act given federal funding available to promote digital equity. Agency rules should be consistent with digital discrimination goals, and stakeholders must hold themselves accountable by measuring outcomes to ensure that older adults have equal access to broadband. Connors from SAGE, which serves LGBTQ+ seniors, said that these older adults are twice as likely to be living alone and four times less likely to have children, so lack of access to broadband and tech training is a major barrier to health equity.
Norris from National Church Residencies, which offers affordable housing and independent living options to vulnerable seniors, discussed the lack of wifi in affordable housing—only 15 percent of the organization’s buildings have wifi due to factors including regulatory barriers and myths about older adults. One of those myths is that seniors don’t want connectivity; they do, Norris said, and use it if it is available and they are properly trained.
In summary, Kamber said that for older adults living in underserved rural areas, broadband is especially important and is a lifeline in emergency situations. He thanked the FCC and said that the agency’s broadband mapping is an important tool in tracking unfair practices and detecting where digital discrimination exists.