Benton Foundation

Benton and TPRC Celebrate 5 years of Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Awards

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Adrianne B. Furniss
Furniss

It may be odd to speak of a celebration in the time of COVID, but I believe there is value in highlighting the good when we can.

This year, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society celebrates our 40th year of protecting democratic values and championing a communications system that works for everyone. Our values of access, equity, and diversity remain the same. But we’ve advanced our mission with the times. We began as an institution focused on the public interest issues raised by emerging communications technologies and on championing long-term public policy solutions to address these issues. We’re now focused on the dominant communications platform of our day: ensuring fast, fair, open broadband for all.

As we think of how far we have come — starting a year before IBM introduced the first personal PC — we’re proud of the fact that the Benton Institute champions broadband that delivers opportunities and strengthens communities. We’re proud of our history of advancing communications policy in the public interest. And we are proud to provide daily support and resources to the community of people who care about broadband’s promise to deliver education, healthcare, economic equality, and civic engagement to everyone.

In the coming months you’ll be hearing of ways you can join the celebration and partner in our work.

Today we celebrate Benton’s collaboration with TPRC. In the five years since Charles Benton’s death, TPRC and the Benton Institute have partnered on a shared passion: encouraging new voices and views in the areas of broadband adoption and digital inclusion. At his core, Charles was a lifelong learner and educator. And he was passionate about connecting scholars with practitioners and policymakers. In creating the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award, Benton and TPRC have strived to highlight research excellence and insight that together can help more people understand their stake in communications policy.

“Digital Exclusion has hugely damaging consequences for people’s lives. It has been my privilege to Chair TPRC’s committee which reviews submissions to the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award,” said Professor Robin Mansell,  London School of Economics and Political Science. “Submitted papers have come from scholars working in multiple disciplines such as law, economics, sociology and media and communications, to name a few. The research—whether using qualitative or quantitative methods—confirms time and again that multiple factors give rise to digital divides. It highlights the variety of strategies and policies aimed at reducing digital inequalities in the US and many other countries. It also confirms that digital exclusion has to be addressed through policies that go beyond making broadband connections available. In the spirit of Charles Benton’s commitment to tackling this challenging policy area, the scholars’ work points to potentially viable policy options, but more than that, it highlights the continuing need for evidence to underpin policy decisions aimed at tackling digital exclusion.”

The initial Charles Benton Award went to Mirjam Lange—a student at Heinrich Heine University in Germany—for her paper on broadband Tariff Diversity and Competition Policy.  In addition to being a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, Mirjam is a member of the city council in Lohmar, Germany, and is focused on digitizing the city’s administration and other smart city initiatives.

In 2018, Matthew Bui and Rachel Moran were recognized for their work on the complex challenges communities of color face in their paper Race, Ethnicity, and Issues of Digital Access and Representation, later published in Telecommunications Policy. They highlighted robust debates within and between groups as they plan their own digital futures. The authors also argued that critical race theorists and other social scientists are needed to deepen communications debates, in the interest of a more democratic communications ecology.

Matthew Bui is now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information where he focuses on data science and data-driven tools. He was recently awarded a $30,000 Kauffman Foundation grant to examine how entrepreneurs of color navigate algorithmic bias on digital platforms.

Rachel Moran, now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public, at the Information School at the University of Washington, recently wrote me saying:

Being a Benton scholar was a truly fantastic experience that allowed me to connect with a diverse and incredibly talented network of scholars, activists and researchers – it really shaped and challenged my research agenda.

Rachel is now focused on an all-too-important topic: misinformation. She is challenging Anglocentricity in research and showing how dis- and mis-information differentially impact historically marginalized communities.

In 2019, the Charles Benton award went to two papers for the first time.

Burcu Baykurt’s (Dis)connecting the Digital City examined how connectivity infrastructures of the digital city are laid over uneven terrains and the ways residents react to those changes.

Burcu is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. A book project on digital inclusion and smart cities is underway. And she’s still working on projects at the intersection of digital inclusion and smart technologies, including the impacts of COVID-19, winning the James Carey Urban Communication Grant from the Urban Communication Foundation.

Assessing the Need for a Measure of Broadband Adoption Inequality, written by Jacob Manlove while he was at Tarleton State University, explored configurations of mobile and fixed broadband use by consumers to provide state policy makers with a more nuanced understanding of broadband access inequalities.

Jacob is now at Arkansas State University in the College of Agriculture.  He is working on a portal for the state of Arkansas—mapping inequality in broadband across the state and on the uses of broadband within precision agriculture—specifically the value of greater upload speeds for large-scale cloud data sharing applications. Finally, Jacob is looking at the uses of broadband in providing veterinarian services to rural areas through the equivalent of telehealth in animal care.

The 2020 Benton awards were presented earlier this year.

In her paper, Sarah Nguyen at the University of Southern California found that homeless women in Los Angeles employed digital tools such as the internet, mobile phones, and social media helping them to enhance their psychological wellbeing, and to seek housing and employment opportunities and healthcare assistance.

Sarah continues her work towards a doctorate degree at the Annenberg School for Communication. During COVID-19, she’s helped form and develop a digital health platform startup in California offering an electronic health record solution to patients and providers alike.

Edward Oughton is at George Mason University. He developed an open source Simulation Model for Broadband Universal Service in Africa to test universal service strategies. Internet access is essential for economic development, especially as even basic broadband can revolutionize available economic opportunities. Edward’s work helps governments to make strategic choices to connect excluded citizens. Edward continues this data analytics work in the Geography & Geoinformation Science Department where he published a global assessment of 4G and 5G universal broadband and carried out universal broadband country assessments in Africa, South Asia, and Central America. His work has gained traction at the World Bank and their local country offices.

TPRC logoI wish we all were gathered together in person right now to celebrate the awardees’ research and ongoing accomplishments, of which Benton is enormously proud. Hopefully we’ll be able to meet in 2022 when TPRC holds its 50th conference. Before that, there will be another call for Charles Benton Early Career Scholar papers; I encourage you all to publicize this opportunity far and wide so that the wonderful committee led by LSE’s Robin Mansell has plenty to review before we gather again!

As I wrote my remarks, I realized that the Benton-TPRC collaboration embodies the goals of Charles Benton and the Benton Institute. We can improve everyone’s life if we can connect and engage researchers, policymakers, members of the private sector and civil society, students, and practitioners in addressing our common problems. And we must adopt a holistic approach, combining affordable access to fast, fair, and open communications networks and the training needed to develop 21st century skills.

Thank you, Benton Early Career Scholars. And thank you, TPRC community.


Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.