Dr. Nicol Turner Lee is an expert in equitable access to digital technology and the new Director of the Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation. Her research explores broadband deployment and the intersection of race, civic engagement, and criminal justice reform. In this episode listeners will get to hear her about her work to expand digital equity and her belief that we need to build a technology ecosystem that provides innovation and opportunities for all.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: 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.
So, I started this podcast because I wanted to amplify the voices of women doing important work that moved this country forward. And, so often we hear about the need for more women in technology, and we definitely need more women in science, technology, engineering and math.
But, I also think we need to create a space to signal-boost the women already here, and already doing neat things. And, today I have someone joining us who meets all those qualifications and more, because she's someone we need to listen to, because she's an expert in digital equity.
And now, during this public health emergency that has strained our hospitals, and crashed our economy -- we've got protests in our streets -- I think we need people talking about digital equity, because we need connections that strengthen our mutual bonds, and prove that our interdependence is powerful.
I think we need to talk more about broadband for all, and I am so pleased that Dr. Nicol Turner Lee is here today to do it.
Now, she is a Senior Fellow at Brookings in the Governance Program Center for Technology Innovation, and she researches public policy designed to help develop equitable access to technology across the United States, designed to harness of power and create change in communities here at home, and really around the world.
And, Dr. Turner Lee's research also explores global and domestic broadband deployment and all sorts of internet governance issues. She's an expert on the intersection of race, wealth and technology, and she's really got incredible ideas about civic engagement, criminal justice and economic development.
And, I am so pleased to also call her a friend. So, Dr. Turner Lee, Nicol, thank you for being here today.
MS. TURNER LEE: Thank you so much, Commissioner. You know, I'm one of your big fan girls when it comes to you. We've known each other for so long.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. I know. This is like having a buddy. But, I want to ask first of all, how are you doing right now? These are days.
MS. TURNER LEE: You know, it's a lot. I mean, I have to say as a woman, if we can just focus on women, it has been hard to be a professional, and a mother, and a cook, and a dog walker, and the laundry person, and the counselor, all at the same time. I think we, as women, have realized during this pandemic how just multi-layered we are.
And, we've, actually, I think for many of us, we've tried to rise to the occasion, but I'm going to tell you this. I'm tired.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. I drink a lot of coffee, that's the only way. It's coffee o'clock many more hours of the day than I anticipated, but I'm working from home is one thing, working from home in a pandemic is another, a whole other thing.
MS. TURNER LEE: I've got one success story, though, to share. Out of all of this, I've got a 12th grader that's on the way to college.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Congratulations.
MS. TURNER LEE: So in 2020 we did get that one done. Now, I just have to deal with my 13-year old daughter, and I'm still not sure what we are going to do without camp. But, other than that I'm just glad to be with you, generally, because you just bring so much warmth to this debate. Thank you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So, let's roll back before the kids, before the pandemic, before it all, and tell me, before you got to where you are right now at Brookings, you know, what was your path? What were the things that lit you along the way and made you interested in these issues, and got you to where you are?
MS. TURNER LEE: Well, a lot of people don't know my story. You know, many people know my previous work in advocacy prior to coming to Brookings. But, before I even joined the advocacy world in Washington, D.C., I was, actually, part of the community world.
I was finishing my Ph.D. at Northwestern in Chicago, and as a young student was curious about the city, and I had the opportunity to volunteer to a D.C.-based organization. And, this is really before the advent of the internet that we know today.
I mean, this was when poverty was really real. It's still real, but I think back then, we didn't know, as my idol, Michael Harrington, said, of the other America. It was unclear how many people, actually, were on the rolls of poverty. We had written them off, essentially, and I was sitting in a community in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, which is concentrated, densified housing, 50,000 people in 25 full blocks volunteering.
And, I got into the internet, because these kids were trying to find a way to understand what the whole world was about. And, I'll never forget this. I was working at that time with a young organization, with young kids, and I remember bringing these young people to my home, because I was a student, had nothing else, you know, family. And, I had a computer in a corner, right? And, all of the kids gathered around the computer to see what this thing was.
And, that led me to think, Commissioner, like there is a problem here. Not only do we have, as William Julius Wilson, the sociologist, talked about the social isolation of classes. We have poverty in ways that is so -- has so deprived people of not just opportunity, but the vision of things that they can imagine. And, that triggered me to go into starting a tech center.
And so, I early on joined the Community Technology Center by working in public housing to bring 386 computers -- that's how old I am -- with CD-ROMs and DVDs to some of Chicago's very impoverished neighborhoods, neighborhoods that, as a New Yorker, I had never seen before.
Coming out of that experience, as a person who was in the graduate program, volunteering in public housing, teaching kids computer skills, there was something special that happened with regards to our society, which was things migrated online.
And so, for those of us who were in college, we understood, you know, what tech was about. We knew that there was an intranet and internet. But, it was a special moment when the people that I was working with, as a volunteer still, saw the internet, and they saw jobs, and they saw encyclopedias now digitized through Encarta CD from Microsoft, and they saw places that they had not visited. And, it was at that point I was hooked.
And, I finished my degree subsequently. I got a Ph.D., and I worked for a very long time before coming to Brookings, and, actually, coming to Washington, D.C., working in communities. I was part of a group, What Economy, where we met almost 20 years ago, where I was, essentially, trying to figure out ways to bring broadband access to housing developments, and the rest is history.
I think I was just one of those people that decided to become a larger evangelist, and take it to Washington, D.C. So, I'm happy I'm here, because the work that I do now at Brookings informs policy, but it's very much based on my realistic experiences of being in communities where their thirst just could not be clinched by what was, actually, being provided to them.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love how you've combined sociology and technology. And, I know that's informed all your work associated with closing the digital divide. It's really been a theme throughout your professional life.
But, this pandemic, this current moment we are in, has shown a spotlight on digital equity, and issues of access, like I think nothing before.
And, you know that I talk all the time about the homework gap. Kids have internet service in school, but they don't have it at home. And, in normal days they can't do their homework, they can't do their schoolwork at night. But now, for those same kids it means the digital classroom is locked.
And, I'd love it if you could speak a little bit to what you've realized with all your work now during this pandemic about just how critical connections are for kids at school, and really for everyone else.
MS. TURNER LEE: Yes, it's so interesting, Commissioner, when we were all kind of growing up in this, right, when the community tech center movement was all about community networks. And then, we went into the space around devices, broadband, digital literacy, content. And, it's all interesting that since our friend Larry Irving starting talking about this, early 2000s at Department of Commerce, and we're still talking about it.
And, what's been so distressing to me is that we are talking about it now, where it's, actually, moved from a binary construct, who is online, and who is not, to the very things that you spoke about with the homework gap, and you introduced that five years ago, when you spoke about kids that didn't have broadband service at home, who could not finish their homework because they lacked, much like a pencil, the very resource needed to just, actually, complete a research project, or a homework assignment.
You know, I am just hurt and disappointed honestly as a person who has worked in communities that we are still talking about this. We are talking about this in the backdrop of very robust technology companies and innovations that are basically changing the way that we live in America and we live across the world.
And so, this pandemic, in many respects, and you and I have spoken about this on numerous occasions, has brought back the spotlight on the homework gap. And, it's brought about in such a way that it is so compelling, particularly, in my conversations with superintendents and educators and my personal stance as a parent in a well-resourced system, that we were unable to meet the promise of leveraging broadband as we know it, as it should be, as we considered it to be ubiquitously available to millions of school-age kids.
Fifty-three million out of school. I think you shared this recently, about 12-15 million without access, and those kids suffer, and that really to me was shameful on the part of the United States, to not make it a priority over the last 25 years.
Broadband has, typically, been the conversation around supply, right, and it's been the conversation around the edges, but on the margin, not in the middle of conversations like education or energy or healthcare.
But, I really think during this pandemic that we changed the equation, and it takes us -- as they say, this is dedicated to female leaders, it takes a few of us women to say something loud, right? And then, they turn to us and look, and now we are talking about a whole bunch of people that look like me, African Americans who are saying it loud, and young people, the bottom line is we should have been ready for this. We were designed for a moment like this, and we miserably failed when it came to ensuring connectivity for all, particularly, our most vulnerable students that were in desperate need of having a tablet alongside a textbook, versus not having anything, you know, at all.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. No, listen, there's so much to unpack in who is vulnerable, and who is likely to be part of this digital underclass.
And, I know one of the elements of it involves rural communities. You know, the places in this country that might be beautiful, but they are awfully remote, and the cost of deployment is really high relative to the population.
And, I know that you have spent some time in rural communities, and recently even in a community in rural western Maryland, you know, all the time going to their houses, talking to students, talking to teachers, talking to business owners, about connectivity and challenges.
And, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that, because it takes from the world of general really down to the specific, and I know you've written about it. So, tell me some more here.
MS. TURNER LEE: Yes. It's so interesting, I mean, I don't think that the Commissioner who has known me for so many years would know that I was writing a book about this stuff. I'm one of these people with, you know, the large mouthpiece around these issues, and now I'm actually putting it to paper.
So, in the last year, actually, the year before this pandemic, I had spent an entire year traveling around the country. I decided that the Beltway, you know, we think we know who we are talking to, when in actuality we may not.
And, the way that the digital divide has morphed into sort of this digital invisibility was really important to me based on what you said, to understand the overlay of systemic inequality on how they are exacerbated by not having access.
So, I went to all these communities. I didn't have on my D.C. gear, you know, I went in with gym shoes and, you know, not those leggings that I'm wearing every day, right, but different clothes. And, I used to, I just walked up on people after finding a champion in that particular community and asking about their internet access.
And, two of those communities I went to were rural. And, it was very interesting because I'm a city girl, and so it was my first time, actually, going into a community where a cow was right in my face, and it wasn't at a zoo, right? And, I was, actually, sitting in places that there were more animals than there were people, generally, right?
And so, one of those communities is Garrett County, Maryland. And, it was interesting, because I wanted to go there because I had heard about a project around the use of TDY space, which was so different than the conversations we'd been having when it comes to rural broadband deployment, which is, you know, put a lot of money towards either incumbent solutions or solutions that have worked before, with the hope that one of these solutions will stick.
And, I think you have been at the forefront of continuing to remind people that rural broadband challenges have been around for decades, right? It's something that we have not been able to fix for a whole host of reasons, return on investments, the facility, proximity, et cetera, et cetera.
But, in this community I met some really interesting people. You know, a person like a mechanic, who as a result of having TDY space, which is the use of unused broadcast spectrum, that allows for, I would say, more smaller meshed networks to come together for connectivity, said he was able, just by having that one connection, to order the part in like five minutes versus ten hours, because he had to go through every book to figure out what card.
He said his wife was upstairs telecommuting to Boston, because of this connectivity that they have that they never had before.
I met a social service agency that because of having kiosks now in certain parts of the Amish community there, they can actually gather data and provision better services.
I met a farmer who, you know, still at this point, even with a TDY space solution, would love to have more access just to order equipment, not do precision agriculture, but just to order equipment into his farm, you know, where his home is.
And, to me that was very humbling, because what it suggested, as Washington, D.C. policymakers, we often think that if we throw a whole lot of Post-It notes that's something that's going to stick, and then we somehow find a way to take the Post-It notes and carve it into the program that we think is best for people that we don't know what their particular needs are. And so, I wrote a piece about that, in terms of my experience there.
Similarly, you know, I'll share this one in terms of rural. I had a chance to go to a Black rural community in Marion, Alabama. You sat on the panel with Dr. Cathy Trimble. Huge poverty, poverty upon poverty in that place. Lack of access to libraries, and downtown was still a ten-mile trek.
But yet, you know, we can't forget those groups, right, and this particular teacher or principal decided to get a one-to-one solution and find a way to put access on it, so she could not just have the student have it, but the whole community, the whole household.
And, I would say to you, as we consider ways to solve the rural problem, I realize there are a couple things at play. One is, what is solution, and we have so long just found ourselves looking at one way to do this, right? When really, maybe it's multiple solutions, multiple ambassadors, multiple use cases that we may actually have to deploy to get rural down to the finish line. And, I totally believe that after doing the work on the book.
Every community is different. And then, I also think that we have to look at rural communities and stop kind of pitting them against urban, right, because we still have challenges in urban. There are still places around the country where people who live in a city that can't afford it, or they don't have access to be part of the service.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's so important, because, you know, we talk about the rural problem a lot in Washington, and we should, because we've got to figure out how to get some kind of digital infrastructure everywhere.
But, we also have to recognize that in urban and suburban communities there are a lot of folks who are disconnected, too. And, we don't solve our digital divide if we don't also address that adoption problem.
So, tell me about your work that you've done with, I would say, less rural communities, maybe even urban communities, and how we start developing the kind of programs that can get more people connected and more households in those places.
MS. TURNER LEE: Well, I think it goes back to what I found in rural, right? It's going to take a host of solutions. And, I think the same thing will be the case in urban. I mean, we have a lot more passover rate as we have seen through the FCC report in terms of connectivity access.
But, in urban communities I've found that, you know, one gentleman that I met, his mobile phone is active two weeks out of the month, because he runs out of data by the second week. And, he's a day laborer, meaning that he is no longer able to work.
And, I found kids, like who I had been very concerned about before the pandemic, that were walking to local McDonald's to finish their homework, because they lacked home broadband in a rural area two or three miles outside of the state capital of Hartford, Connecticut, to give you a sense of that.
I mean, I was talking with Elin Katz one of the Commissioners there.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, that's my hometown, my own backyard.
MS. TURNER LEE: I know.
You know, I went there, you know, and I visited Elin and the community organizer, who at the end of that visit I realized, like many other urban areas, it's not that they don't have it, it's just that they don't know that what they don't have is sufficient enough to do what they have to do, right?
So, the barber shop owner, the beauty supply place, the mother who is waiting outside the library trying to do telehealth, this is another woman I met who lived in an urban community, who said that without my son's phone I would have known that I was in the first stage of breast cancer, because my doctor had moved to this online system, you can't even call anymore.
See, to me, I think the issues around the death of analog matter, and this pandemic, which I think for those of us who have been doing this for many, many, many years, just showed a light for us to say we told you so. We've been telling you so, this is not new.
So, I know you do the same thing. I tell people constantly, this is not the invention of a new digital divide. This is now even worse, because this digital invisibility is the other America. It's a new America that is so shut out of every pertinent conversation and service and benefit that can be offered.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, I love that you are introducing the concept of digital invisibility, and I also know, in fact, that you are using that when you describe your book, which is, the Digitally Invisible, How the Internet is Creating a New Underclass.
So, I want you to talk a little bit about that title, because that's some heavy stuff. And, what your thesis is in this book, and how you discuss these issues because they are so important.
MS. TURNER LEE: So, it's so interesting. And, you know, I think when I started the book I wanted to write something on something I knew best at Brookings' Press, right?
As a senior fellow, that's what we do, we think and we write books. And so, I was thinking about the things I want to talk about, and trust me, I also work on things like algorithmic discrimination and infrastructure, and I decided to go with this book, honestly, after going to Michelle Obama's Becoming tour, I'm not going to lie.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I don't know that you could choose a better model. That sounds like a nice place to start.
MS. TURNER LEE: I mean, I don't think I'll pack out, you know, huge stadiums, but it was something that did in there that was a trigger for me, that she told me personal stories.
And, as I decided to write this book, I wanted to tell these stories. And, as I was thinking about these stories, the concept of digitally stuck and digitally invisible kept coming in my head. Digitally stuck means that it's kind of like, as my friend Larry shared with me, not Larry Irving, the other Larry that we know out of California, he shared with me this model of an escalator where at a certain point people become stuck, because the escalator either stops halfway through, or they get to the top and they don't really know where they are going.
And, I think we all thought we were there, because we put so much money and investment in policy that should get people, you know, at the height of the elevator, the end of it, but really what I think is digitally invisible.
And, we think because people have access to smart phones and other devices, and they are digitally intuitive around what the technology offers, and they know about social media in its purest form of what, you know, connection to be made.
It does not, necessarily, mean that they are using those things to improve quality of life. And so this journey in my book has been around the digitally invisible in terms of how are we as a country not leveraging the resources that we have available through this new tech ecosystem to make changes around how we service people, how we connect to people, how we educate people, and how we integrate them into the next wave of digital innovation.
Now, as a regulator I'm always looking at you folks saying to myself, I don't know how they keep up with technology policy, because, you know, once something is regulated a new thing comes aboard.
So, imagine if you are not part of that conversation. Tools and resources are not designed to serve you, the data that is collected about you, if it's even collected at all because you are not online so it's not necessarily help you advance. And, it's these circumstances around the technology that I think, like yourself and other technology policy wonks, that has so much potential for achievement and advancement, and really surfacing hard issues like we are seeing with smart phones during a protest, during the killing of George Floyd, right, to the use of AI to solve health challenges.
But, it's one in which, if you don't have it we don't see you. We don't know you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's so well put. If you don't have it, we don't see you, you know, because there's also this level of, you want to connect everyone. But, when you connect to everyone, you don't just want them consuming, you want them creating, because in that creating is fuller participation in our economy, our civic culture.
And to me, like even these days, we are wrestling with the fact that we are not all connected, and even among those who are connected we are not all creating.
MS. TURNER LEE: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And, I hope when we get to the other side of this we are going to figure out how to improve on these things. We're probably going to use your book to do it, because we are going to need some suggestions for good ideas.
MS. TURNER LEE: I've got some for you; just wait.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I'm so glad that you do what you do. And again, just tell me the name of the book so you can say it yourself, and when it's coming out.
MS. TURNER LEE: So, the name of the book is, Digitally Invisible: How the Internet Has Created the New Underclass, and I just want to clarify the new underclass are not just people that we typically think of that are disproportionately poor, minorities, foreign-born, older, rural. But they are farmers now are part of the new digital class, right, that mechanics are part of the new digital underclass.
And so, that's the name of the book. It has been a fantastic time. This quarantine has given me tons of time to write when I'm not being those other roles. And, in addition to that, this period of time has given me a lot of self-reflection on policy that we need to break and restart and redo.
And, I would even suggest, you know, I wouldn't be myself if I didn't say this, even the type of enthusiasm around this protest, and the movement for change, whatever that may be by everybody listening, right, as a woman, as an African American, as a student, as a young person, as somebody who's been impacted by police brutality. All that energy is, actually, going into this book.
So, the book will be out January, 2021, because it's got to go through all that other stuff, but I'm really excited for it being a groundbreaking piece on how we need to go back and harness the power of technology to help us solve problems again.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I am so glad that you do this work at Brookings, and you are contributing your background in technology and sociology to this work in Washington.
MS. TURNER LEE: Yeah, my mother is glad, too, she didn't know what I was going to do with a sociology degree.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right, well, you did tell her there are a lot of people who are very proud of your work, and I don't think that she should be so concerned at this moment, at this time.
So, before you go I have a few questions I like to ask every guest. And, one is like from the Wayback Machine. So, you've got to tell me what was the first thing you did online or on the internet?
MS. TURNER LEE: Email, I think at that time I emailed a teacher. That was probably the first thing.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You emailed a teacher. That's a little bit nerdy. It's not like looking for music, not looking for a song, it's not looking for, you know.
MS. TURNER LEE: I emailed the teacher because remember at that time the internet was available at colleges and universities, so at that time I, actually, had my first exposure to email.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, okay. Email the teacher, feels like a Ph.D. student thing to say. All right, we are moving on.
What's the last thing you did, like, literally, the very last thing you did online?
MS. TURNER LEE: Well, like in the last couple hours today I did a Zoom call. I would actually tell you -- okay, I'll be authentic. The most significant part of my internet experience was meeting my new friend, and he's wonderful. So, I put that out there.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my goodness. Life changes are happening in quarantine. All right.
MS. TURNER LEE: That was before quarantine.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: We are going to have things to talk about later.
So now, I want you to step back, put on the, you know, future -- look out to the future and tell me what you want digital and internet life to look like.
MS. TURNER LEE: I think if I was to think about the future, I would say that the future that many of us thought about when we were growing up, with the Jetsons and other shows that were all futuristic, you know, flying robots and cars. I honestly think that at some point that's all going to come true.
But, I think when I look at the internet I want to see a world where the internet is used for public good. And, it's used for humanity to solve problems like climate change, and racial unrest, and create conversations that bring us together versus polarize us.
And, I think just going forward I see the internet as a tool for really the next mode of communication that will be as important as the telephone was when we were trying to stay in touch with each other, as we sat in communities.
And so, I'm real optimistic about the power of technology, I really am, but my pessimism and my full desire, and I'll do this until the day I go to my grave, is to make sure everybody has this.
And so, you know, like I said, I'm a fangirl, Commissioner, because when I hear you think about this I'm right there with you, and somebody has to do it. And, now it's up to generations beyond ourselves, women in particular, rising up, because we have to make sure that no one is left behind. We cannot allow the life of analog to live anymore further in the lives of people, you know, who need it the most.
And so, that's what I hope to see in the next ten years, that we are looking at technology as something that's just as normal as having bread, you know, or milk in your refrigerator, it's just part of who we are.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hear, hear, all right.
So before we go, tell me where folks can follow you and keep up with the work you are doing.
MS. TURNER LEE: So, people can follow me, obviously, at Brookings, if you go to the Brookings website, I have an expert page. You can also follow all of my work outside of Brookings from my personal webpage, which is drnicolspeaks.com, real easy, and then I'm always active on Twitter, so go online and find me @drturnerlee, @drturnerlee you will find me involved in somebody else's conversation, if not yours at all times.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So, that wraps up this episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you, Nicol, for being here, thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.