Opinion: Patent dispute undermines efforts to close gaps in American society

The recent announcement of a pilot program to bring broadband to low-income households in public housing and members of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma is another positive development among many other ongoing public and private sector programs designed to help connect the underserved to modern technology. This new broadband initiative, ConnectHome, aims to connect nearly 300,000 households in low-income housing communities in 27 cities across the nation to high-speed Internet access- a most noteworthy cause.

Projects like ConnectHome are so more important in the modern digital world as they help to deliver Internet access to more Americans that still need it.  Internet access is a transformational technology that is reshaping our communities regardless of racial, economic or geographic disparities.  Wireless connectivity has shown even greater potential to close the digital divide and put Internet access into the hands of more minority consumers.  Accessing the Internet via a smartphone has become the preferred means of connectivity and that trend is here to stay especially in lower-income communities.

Therefore, the implications of a dispute over patents behind the chips in some smart phones and other mobile devices before the International Trade Commission (ITC) is especially timely and of particular concern to The Latino Coalition and other organizations like ours that are fighting to close the digital divide and ensure greater access to the Internet and its boundless benefits.

The case before the ITC is focused on a claim by Nvidia Corp that Samsung Electronics Co. and Qualcomm Inc. infringed on certain patents related to a Nvidia chip in certain devices.   But unlike most other patent infringement cases that are litigated in court and resolved with financial damages, this case is troubling because NVidia has petitioned the ITC for an “exclusion order” of certain Samsung products, including tablets and smartphones.

An exclusion order could disrupt the smartphone market and thereby reduce access to smartphones and other connected devices for price sensitive communities that rely on competitively priced devices.  For many Americans, a smartphone is their primary point of entry to all the Internet has to offer to access critical information like government services, educational materials and employment opportunities.  This access must be protected.   While it may seem like everyone has constant and immediate access to the Internet, the reality is quite different for many underserved communities. Minority communities rely disproportionately on smartphones as their primary means of accessing the Internet.

Data from the Pew Research Center clearly illustrates how important mobile connectivity is to minority communities as at least 13% of Hispanics and 12% of African-Americans are “smartphone-dependent,” suggesting that they don’t have access to the Internet at home. In the past year, 73% of Hispanics who own a smartphone have used their device to search for information related to a health condition, and 45% have used their phone to look up educational materials or take a class online.

If access to devices that enable mobile broadband is limited consumers could be left with fewer choices and higher costs – outcomes that will slow, rather than advance, the positive progress that has been made in closing the digital divide.  We are narrowing the gap by the day - 81% of Hispanics now use the Internet, compared with 85% of whites – so it is alarming to think that this progress could be slowed.

Access to technology in today’s digital world is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.  The ITC should reject Nvidia’s request for an exclusion order as it would have a disproportionate impact on minority communities and slow the great progress that is being made to connect the still unconnected.  Rather than limiting devices, policymakers should continue to put their energy into initiatives like ConnectHome that will deliver Internet services to more Americans.

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