Broadband Research and Digital Inclusion

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at

Robbie’s Round-Up
Week of January 4-8, 2015

After a two week break, Robbie’s Round-Up returns to highlight some news you may have missed.

When we think about closing the digital divide and promoting broadband adoption, we must look beyond just the hard numbers on who has broadband and who does not. It is important to recognize the many facets of digital inclusion, focusing on how people can gain digital access and develop the skills and digital literacy to make use of relevant content and services. Meaningful broadband adoption has the power to strengthen communities and move us towards a more equitable and diverse society.

In the past few weeks we have seen important research published on broadband, particularly on access, speed, adoption, and use. Woven together, these findings give us a picture of where we stand as we begin 2016.

FCC's 2016 Broadband Progress Report
On Jan 7, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated to the other FCC commissioners a draft of the Commission's 2016 Broadband Progress Report. The report, mandated by law, seeks to determine whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” If the answer is negative, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to “take immediate action” to speed deployment. The report will be considered at the FCC's January 28 Open Meeting.

The report's conclusion? Broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans. Specifically, the report highlights the following factors :

  • Approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps for downloads, 3 Mbps for uploads.
  • A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband.
    • By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access.
    • 10 percent lack access nationwide.
    • 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access.
  • Internationally, the US continues to lag behind a number of other developed nations, ranking 16th out of 34 countries.

Some were critical of the conclusion, particularly AT&T: “It’s bad enough the FCC keeps moving the goal posts on their definition of broadband, apparently so they can continue to justify intervening in obviously competitive markets. But now they are even ignoring their own definition in order to pad their list of accomplishments. We’ve seen this movie before. In order to apply its net neutrality rules to as many services as possible, the FCC considers very low speeds to be broadband then cites a much higher speed level in order to claim broadband is not being reasonably and timely deployed under Section 706. So, which is it? It’s beginning to look like the FCC will define broadband whichever way maximizes its power under whichever section of the law they want to apply. This cannot be what Congress intended.”

In contrast, Meredith Rose, staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said, “The Report looked at hard evidence, and declines to ‘rubber stamp’ carriers’ claims of accessibility. This finding, and the data gathered for it, will allow policymakers to take an honest look at the broadband landscape and what needs to be done to ensure that all Americans have access to the quality broadband we need to ensure our digital future.”

Be sure to tune into Headlines coverage for the lead-up and aftermath of the Jan 28 Open Meeting.

FCC Releases Fifth ‘Measuring Broadband America’ Report
On December 30, the FCC released its fifth “Measuring Broadband America” report, which measures the speed offerings of consumers’ fixed broadband Internet access service in an effort to help consumers make more-informed choices about broadband services.

The findings of the report are mixed. Overall, broadband speeds continue to increase for the average consumer, and broadband service providers generally are delivering speeds that meet or exceed advertised speeds. However, there is a growing disparity in advertised download speeds between many DSL-based broadband services (broadband delivered over traditional phone lines) and most cable and fiber-based broadband services. More specifically:

  • Significant growth in advertised broadband speeds available to consumers, though the results are not uniform across technologies. Averaged across all participating ISPs, maximum advertised speeds increased from 37.2 Mbps in September 2013 to 72 Mbps in September 2014 – an increase of 94 percent.
  • Actual speeds experienced by most ISPs’ subscribers are close to or exceed advertised speeds. All ISPs using cable, fiber or satellite technologies advertise speeds for services that on average are close to or below the actual speeds experienced by their subscribers. However, some DSL providers continue to advertise speeds that on average exceed actual speeds.
  • Consumers with access to faster services continue to migrate to higher service tiers.
  • Latency and packet loss vary by technologies. Consumers generally experienced low latency – the time it takes for a data packet to travel from one point to another in a network – on DSL, cable and fiber systems.

University of Nebraska College of Law Professor Gus Hurwitz, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, accused the FCC of releasing the report on “the deadest media week of the year”, in order to keep people from reading the good news in order for the FCC to implement its aggressive, regulatory broadband agenda.

Pew Releases Home Broadband Adoption Report
On December 21, Pew Research Center released a report, “Home Broadband 2015”, that identifies a number of notable changes relating to broadband adoption:

  • People Get That Broadband Is Important. Both broadband users and those who do not have broadband are increasingly likely to view home broadband as a key tool for accessing information that is important to their lives. Roughly two-thirds (69%) of Americans indicate that not having a home high-speed internet connection would be a major disadvantage to finding a job, getting health information or accessing other key information – up from 56% who said this in 2010.
  • But home broadband adoption seems to have plateaued. It now stands at 67% of Americans, down slightly from 70% in 2013, a small but statistically significant difference which could represent a blip or might be a more prolonged reality. This change moves home broadband adoption to where it was in 2012.
  • This down-tick in home high-speed adoption has taken place at the same time there has been an increase in “smartphone-only” adults – those who own a smartphone that they can use to access the Internet, but do not have traditional broadband service at home. Today smartphone adoption has reached parity with home broadband adoption (68% of Americans now report that they own a smartphone), and 13% of Americans are “smartphone-only” – up from 8% in 2013. Some of the most significant changes in these adoption patterns are taking place among African Americans, those with relatively low household incomes and those living in rural areas.
  • Cost is the major barrier to broadband adoption. The monthly cost of broadband service is now cited by a plurality of non-adopters as the most important reason for not having a home broadband subscription. Among non-broadband adopters, 33% cite the monthly cost of service as the main reason they lack broadband at home, with an additional 10% citing the cost of a computer as their main reason for not having broadband service.
  • 15% of American adults report they have become “cord cutters” – meaning they have abandoned paid cable or satellite television service. Many of these cord cutters say that the availability of televised content from the Internet and other sources is a factor in their move away from subscription television services.

The Pew report says, “These changes are related: Non-broadband adopters who view a lack of home service as a major disadvantage are also more likely to cite the monthly cost of broadband as the primary reason they do not subscribe. Price sensitivity, in other words, is greatest among those who are most likely to see the advantages of a home broadband subscription.”

I highly recommend reading the full report, as it contains a wealth of information concerning broadband adoption in the US.

New Benton Foundation Research on Digital Inclusion Efforts
The Benton Foundation released new research, Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, conducted by Benton Faculty Research Fellow Dr. Colin Rhinesmith, that identifies four essential activities that are necessary for efforts aimed at a more inclusive digital society. In conversations with and observations of eight digital inclusion organizations across the U.S., Dr. Rhinesmith, an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma, found that in order to help low-income individuals and families adopt broadband in ways that are most appropriate to their personal needs and contexts, local organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.

National Education Technology Plan
On December 10, the Department of Education released the 2016 National Education Technology Plan, titled “Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education”. The last national ed-tech plan was released in 2010, a time when digital tablets were just coming on the market and the notion of digital "personalized learning" was still being developed. Five years later, the conversation has shifted from whether schools should use technology to how it can be used most effectively.

The plan serves as a blueprint for how technology should be used in schools, calls for improving teacher training, and draws attention to what it describes as a “digital-use divide”. “While essential, closing the digital divide alone will not transform learning. We must also close the digital use divide by ensuring all students understand how to use technology as a tool to engage in creative, productive, life-long learning rather than simply consuming passive content,” the report reads.

The report marks a key transition towards an education technology policy environment that recognizes digital equity is not confined to only access to technologies, but also the literacy and use of those technologies.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

Events Calendar for the Week of Jan 11-15

ICYMI From Benton

By Robbie McBeath.