As a prominent media advisor and political commentator, Jamal Simmons specializes in helping clients solve public relations and strategic issues through the media. Simmons is a principal at The Raben Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm, where he provides communications and strategic counsel to corporate and non-profit clients.
He got his start in politics by volunteering on campaigns while growing up in Detroit. He got his professional start in presidential politics traveling with President Bill Clinton during his successful 1992 campaign and was a political appointee during the first Clinton Administration with U.S. Trade Representative and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor.
In 2000, he was a communications aide for Vice President Al Gore during his presidential campaign and served as a Gore spokesman in West Palm Beach, Florida during the recount. He has served as a senior aide to several democratic political campaigns, including as a communications advisor to the Democratic National Committee during the 2008 campaign to elect Barack Obama President of the United States and the presidential campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton.
Simmons received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Morehouse College and a Master in Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard University. His opinions have been featured in major national news outlets, and he is a frequent guest on cable and network news shows analyzing the events of the day. He spoke with Monarch magazine about the importance of Internet technology and the advancement of American society.
What is the importance of Internet technology?
It’s a huge topic! I think you’re seeing it in media space and everywhere you can think of from education, to healthcare, to politics. All these realms of American life are being transformed by the Internet and the Internet has been transformed by broadband. Ten to fifteen years ago, having an AOL account and having to listen to that crackling (dial-up) sound had me feeling like victory was at hand. I met a guy recently who works at Google.
He had been with Google so long that he could remember when he would tell people that it was like Ask Jeeves only different [laughs]. Remember when Ask Jeeves was the standard? The industry has transformed so much. Back then we just used to sit down at our desks and use Web Crawler that would generate thousands of hits with no organization. Then you got Yahoo which had a little bit more construction. But we would be sitting stationary, with an Internet that didn’t have much on it comparatively.
Now, I’ve got my iPhone and can be almost anywhere in the world where you can not only search the Web, but you can shop, find restaurants in the area, you can communicate with your friends and family immediately, you can take pictures and transmit them. So it’s gone from being a pretty clunky, semi-useful entertainment device, to something that is integrated into every aspect of our lives.
Where do the biggest issues or gaps lie?
One of the defining lines of progress is whether or not everyone gets to participate in this new resource and the availability of broadband. So for people who live in rural areas who may not have as many cell phone towers or as much connection, they need to have the same access as people who live in big cities. Or, for people who live in very dense areas where there aren’t enough cell towers or coverage, they end up having a clog that occurs because there are too many users at the same time. Like when you are in the middle of an arena at a sporting event. So we have to make sure that there is availability of broadband to as many people no matter where they live, whatever income level they are in, whatever ethnic background, whether urban or rural.
Has the Internet brought us closer or further apart?
It’s done both. It allows people of like minds and like interests to band closer together regardless of where they live. It eliminates the barrier of time and distance. Just today, I was using Sametime with my friend who is in Indonesia. So we had a video conversation for ten minutes, and are thousands of miles apart with a thirteen hour difference. So in that sense, people are able to be connected. At the same time, it has removed the common set of facts and the community that once existed around three major television networks and local newspapers, and how we received our information.
So before, we all operated around the same common set of data and we made decisions off that. Now people are able to self-select their own data, their own information and make decisions and act based on it. So it has both brought us together when we have like minds and separated us when we have different interests.
So is that what is meant by the digital divide?
I think it’s different. So the digital divide historically refers to income and racial gap between people who have money and resources and the people who don’t. So what we saw in the past, people with more money were more connected than anyone else. That is still true when it comes to desktop computers. But when it comes to handheld devices and mobile devices, African Americans and Latinos are over indexed. Whether it’s a laptop, iPad, PDA, minorities are using them more than any other community. So on those devices, we have eliminated the digital divide, but we have to make sure that we all have access to the same speed, same high quality broadband no matter income or geography.
Cost is a factor, but it is infrastructure. As a country, we have to recognize it is an important resource that people need to have access to. Imagine if we have government policies that allow for a robust build out of the infrastructure and allow the industry to have the flexibility it needs to provide the resources where they are most needed and are most productive. It’s only been twenty years that we used Internet commercially. We got to have some humility when we are creating policies that we don’t handcuff the industry and hinder the innovation that we’ve seen over the last twenty years.
How can the normal person influence policy?
The average person should be communicating with their elected representatives making sure they understand that they want this resource. There is a constituency out there of people who can be formed and engage others on the importance of this topic. The government can control broadband and how much can be available. The more people advocating, the better it is for the country.