Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#2513 minutes

Meet Congresswoman Grace Meng, the first female member of Congress from Queens, New York since Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. She's also a member of the Rural Broadband Task Force in the House of Representatives—which you might not expect—because as she notes on the episode, almost 30% of New York City households lack broadband at home. This is a problem for children who need the internet to complete their nightly schoolwork. Listeners will learn about legislation the Congresswoman has proposed to address this problem, known as the Homework Gap, by helping libraries and schools create mobile hotspot lending programs to ensure students can get online at home.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello and welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission. And this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries.

You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

And today, I am so honored, because I am joined by New York Congresswoman Grace Meng. And she's here to talk about a big thing she's been working on. And that's legislation she recently introduced to close the homework gap.

And we're going to talk about all of that in a minute. But let me just brag on her for a second.

You see, Congresswoman Meng is serving her fourth term in Congress and she represents New York's Sixth Congressional District. She is the first and only Asian-American member of Congress from New York State.

And she's also the first female Congress member from Queens since former Vice-Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. So, that's a little bit of history for you.

Plus, she's been named as a member of House Majority Whip James Clyburn's Task Force on Rural Broadband.

So, Congresswoman Meng, thank you so much for being here today.

MS. MENG: Thank you, Commissioner. Thank you for having me.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, I want to get started by asking you to roll back. And you're going to have to share a little bit of your own history how you got to Congress, how you got to where you are today.

MS. MENG: Sure. Well, I will tell you that I had zero intention of going into politics as a kid. I was never part of any student government. I never even took a political science class.

My parents were immigrants who came to this country, and obviously politics wasn't necessarily their first priority.

But I was born and raised in Queens, New York, which is a super-diverse district, and really realized that even high school kids, as a college student, that there were lots of ways that we could help our neighbors and be an asset to our communities.

So, long story short, soon after I graduated law school, I decided to run for local office.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: What was that local office?

MS. MENG: So, I ran for the New York State Assembly, which is part of our New York State legislature.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And from there, on to Capitol Hill in Washington?

MS. MENG: Yes. So, I was there for a few years. And one day, literally out of the blue, the Congress member for my district announced he was retiring. So, I had about two days to decide whether to run, and then to put together a campaign. And, long story short, here I am.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah, the big decisions made over short time frames. It's always like that, isn't it?

MS. MENG: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, the thing about Queens, and you know this well, it's part of New York City. It's a dense place.

But I also mentioned at the very start that you're part of this House of Representatives Task Force for Rural Broadband. So, I want you to explain why you decided to get involved with that effort.

MS. MENG: Yeah, that's a really good question. People are, at first, often confused why I'm part of a rural broadband task force. However, a couple of reasons.

One of the reasons why I got into government and politics was I really want to try to be a voice for under-represented communities and people who don't necessarily have a sufficient or loud enough voice at the table. And part of that, for me, is helping to speak and advocate for children and students.

Another part, one thing I'm involved with, I am one of the vice-chairs of our Democratic National Committee and I've gotten to travel a bit around the country.

And whether I'm in Upstate New York or a rural area in Montana, I've heard a lot of stories from Americans, including young people who have really poor or zero Internet access.

And to me, we live in the richest, most powerful country in the world. And to know that my fellow Americans across the country might not have Internet when the Internet is something that so many people depend on, is just not acceptable to me.

And so, I've decided to work with my colleagues on this issue.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that's terrific, because it's a reminder every network is stronger when more people are connected to it.

MS. MENG: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And seeing someone from Queens make that statement by participating, I think it's really powerful.

Now, I'm going to switch gears. I want to talk about homework, because I can say with authority as a parent that homework has changed.

Because when I was in school, there was paper and a pencil. And if you wanted to do anything that was digital

MS. MENG: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: maybe there was a calculator.

MS. MENG: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But we're now in this world where like kids are bringing home homework and all of them need to access these whole universes online for research, for videos, for making sure they get the content required to fully participate in their education.

I mean, students download assignments, they watch tutorials. My kids, I know, are looking things up all the time. They would laugh if I tried to explain to them what it was like to hike to the library to go look up some fact in an encyclopedia.

MS. MENG: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All of the information was in the card catalog or on those books on the shelves.

MS. MENG: I remember.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, it's not just assignments. Teachers also communicate with parents and children using online resources and it's part of keeping a school community together and education.

In fact, there's data that show that seven in ten teachers now assign homework that requires online access. But from the FCC, we know that one in three households does not have broadband available.

So, that's going to leave roughly 12 million kids stuck without the tools they need to complete assignments now.

MS. MENG: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I call that the homework gap. And I know you've done a lot of work on that. So, I'd love it if you could talk about it.

MS. MENG: Sure. Definitely. You are 100 percent correct on this. I remember when my kids, who are now ten and twelve, when they started getting some homework in school, I remember scolding one of my kids, saying you forgot your textbook at home.

And he said, we don't use the textbook. And I didn't believe him for the first few weeks of class. And I realized, like you were saying, Commissioner, that most, if not all, of their communication with teachers, assignments, and test scores, are revealed through the Internet.

And so, I know for a fact for my family and my kids, that without the Internet, I don't know how we would be able to get access and make sure that they're learning as much as they could.

And even in New York City, which is the world's greatest city, a lot of people still don't have Internet. We had a study recently by our New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, which found that about 30 percent of households in New York City don't have broadband Internet access.

So, this is a problem that spans the country. And we really want to make sure that we are giving our kids as much resources and tools as they need to be able to be successful.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. So much can divide us. But what does unite us is we're all going to need access to this resource to have a fair shot in school, and a fair shot in the 21st Century economy.

And it's amazing to hear those numbers from New York. You think of that as one of the denser, most connected places. What do you see in your district when it comes to connectivity and whether or not kids have what they need to be able to get online to do their school work?

MS. MENG: Yeah, I mean, this is something that's somewhat of a generational change too. I always remember, even when I was growing up, we carried and used textbooks for everything.

We didn't have Internet when I was in school. And so, oftentimes for families, especially in my diverse district where a lot of families are first-generation immigrants, they don't necessarily have the background to be able to help their kids.

So, their students often are the first ones in their families to go to school in the US and maybe eventually go to college. But they are kind of navigating this all on their own.

And so, for those who don't have Internet access, we're fortunate because our library system is open six or seven days a week.

But that is not the case for many students across America if they don't have Internet.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's so true. And I know that you have introduced legislation on this subject. And you've got a bill called Closing the Homework Gap Through Mobile Hotspots Act. So, tell us about that legislation and what you'd like to see Congress do.

MS. MENG: Yes, definitely. This is one of the most exciting pieces of legislation that I think we're working on now.

And, first of all, thank you so much for your support on this bill. I know that your leadership on this issue has been tremendous and it's part of the reason why we're able to work in Congress to close this homework gap.

My bill would create a $100 million grant program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

This is a program that would prioritize institutions that serve the highest number of low-income students.

Libraries, schools, and other entities, could apply for this money and create their own mobile hotspot lending programs.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's fantastic. And it would, of course, work in Queens part of New York City but also in those rural locations you're describing, that you're working on with the Rural Broadband Task Force. Is that right?

MS. MENG: Correct. Correct.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, that's fantastic. Appreciate that it takes a parent of school-aged kids to recognize the priority of these things.

MS. MENG: Right. Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, before I let you go, I have a few questions I want to ask everyone when they sit down and have this chat. So, it's a quick survey on how you use the Internet.

Now, you've already given away that you had a backpack full of books in school and it didn't involve the Internet. But do you remember what was the first thing you did online?

MS. MENG: Wow. I remember being in college. And I didn't grow up with the Internet, so I was in college. I had gone to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which was relatively far from New York.

And email was a way for me to keep in contact with a lot of my high school classmates and friends. So, that was probably the first time that I used the Internet.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that's a good answer, staying in touch. So, let's go to the mundane now. What was the last thing you did on the Internet?

MS. MENG: I probably checked my kids grades online.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah, like any parent would. That makes sense to me. I know there was a time when people came home with these sheets of paper that

MS. MENG: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: indicated what it was. And it was usually crumpled from the bottom of that backpack.

MS. MENG: Yes. There's no hiding now.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: There's no hiding. No hiding anymore. I might have had different feelings about that as a student. But as a parent now, I love it.

MS. MENG: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right, so now we're going to go high-level and ask, what do you want the future of the Internet and digital life to look like?

MS. MENG: Well, I want to make sure that our students have as much access at their fingertips as possible. I think that the future will look very different in ten years, twenty years time.

I know there's lots of debate about the future of the Internet, digital privacy digital privacy for kids, specifically ethics for artificial intelligence.

But these are much needed debates that can shape how these issues will affect job creation and opportunities for Americans, and specifically our next generation.

Our younger generation right now will be dealing with these issues that we didn't necessarily have to deal with when we were growing up.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Here, here. And we need to have those debates right now, figure out what the guardrails need to be. It's so important.

MS. MENG: Yep.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, where can follow you to keep up-to-date with what you're doing back in your district and up on Capitol Hill?

MS. MENG: Sure. Well, on Twitter and Facebook we are @repgracemeng, one word. And our website is

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Thank you so much, Congresswoman. I am so glad that you're working on these issues. I'm glad you're in Congress doing these things, and thank you for being here today.

MS. MENG: Thank you, Commissioner.