The National Broadband Plan at 10: A decade of lessons on increasing home broadband adoption



Monday, March 16, 2020

Digital Beat

The National Broadband Plan at 10:
A decade of lessons on increasing home broadband adoption


Eleven years ago Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a national broadband plan to ensure that all Americans had affordable access to broadband and that America utilized broadband to advance a number of national purposes, including health care, education, job training, public safety, and economic growth. Ten years ago this week, the team delivered that plan. On the occasion of the anniversary, team alumni -- along with Benton and a number of other public interest groups -- had planned to get together to discuss what should be the agenda for a plan for the next decade and what lessons from the plan, and the process that created it, would be helpful as we look toward the future. Due to the coronavirus -- a pandemic that is demonstrating both the stengths and weaknesses of U.S. broadband -- that event has been postponed. But over the coming days and weeks, we will be publishing notes from a number of people who were scheduled to speak at the event.


The 10th Anniversary of the National Broadband Plan offers a chance to reflect on the progress made in the past 10 years and lessons for the future. My focus will be on the progress in addressing the digital divide – increasing the number of Americans with broadband at home. The National Broadband Plan’s guiding principles for broadband adoption (see page 171) still resonate:

  • Focus on the barriers to adoption: Successful efforts address multiple barriers to adoption simultaneously.
  • Focus on broadband in the home: That is critical to maximizing utilization, without neglecting libraries and other community anchors that offer connectivity.
  • Promote connectivity across an entire community: This takes advantage of network effects that arise when people communicate with those nearby.
  • Plan for changes in technology: This ensures that community technology programs serve clients with up-to-date technology and applications.

These principles hold up well after 10 years and have helped shape a digital inclusion ecosystem that consists of surviving Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) projects, private sector initiatives, and those supported by cities and foundations. We have seen steady progress. The survey conducted for the National Broadband Plan found that 65% of Americans had broadband at home. That was mainly a measure of wireline broadband adoption in homes. Today, 69.6% have a wireline broadband subscription according to the American Community Survey (ACS). Wireless access on a smartphone has had a large impact since 2010 on the adoption landscape. When cellular data plans are included, 85.1% of Americans have access to broadband of any type.

Now smartphones have limits as online pathways and research shows that vividly when looking at high school students and homework, as well as job-seekers who are “smartphone only.” With the COVID-19 virus driving education online, professors are aware that not all students have adequate online access away from school, especially those dependent on data-limited smartphone plans. There is a need, therefore, to continue to make progress in home wireline broadband adoption. It is the big pipe off of which households’ internet usage operates. What has 10 years of experience in the field of digital inclusion taught us? Four lessons stand out.

The importance of “demand pull”: Successful broadband adoption initiatives meet demands that emerge in the communities they serve. The Asbury Senior Community Center in Cleveland has trained thousands of low-income residents of its predominantly African American neighborhood over 15 years, working with health care providers to train people on how to use electronic health resources. In Louisville, the city partners with start-up companies and the local public library to train people for “middle skill” jobs, i.e., those that require digital literacy, are well-paid, but usually do not require post-high school education. As intuitive as “demand pull” may be, “tech push” finds its way into some policymakers’ playbooks when they assume that requiring people to use the internet will stimulate adoption. Arkansas tried this with its failed Medicaid work requirement. The line of thinking that argues that compelling online apps will make the internet essential to non-adopting Americans does not always include recommendations to fund digital skills training. Putting the “app before the course” is a prescription for failure.

Public-private partnerships should focus more on seeding solutions than scaling them: Paradoxically, the largest public-private partnership to promote broadband adoption offers the best lesson on the need to cultivate community-based solutions. When Comcast’s Internet Essentials program first got underway, uptake was slower than expected. Offering a price discount, while a necessary programmatic condition, proved to be insufficient to quickly attract subscribers. Extensive outreach and collaboration with schools, after-school programs, public libraries, and other anchor institutions helped to drive uptake. Broadband adoption is a ground game; focusing only on the nature of the service offering isn’t enough. Cultivation of community capital should precede efforts to scale.

We know how to move the dial: More than once during the National Broadband Plan’s formulation a question was asked that went something like “If we fund broadband adoption initiatives, do we know if they will work?” There was no research-based answer then, but there is now. We know that training on digital skills increases the likelihood of people using the internet for job search and learning. Discounted internet offerings such as Internet Essentials increase home broadband adoption in low-income areas in which they are offered at rates greater than similar areas without such offers.

Demand for digital inclusion resources is ongoing – and likely to grow: A 2016 survey found that 54% of all Americans would be interested in training to improve their skills with computers and the internet; 60% said they would be interested specifically in training on how to use online information to find trustworthy information. These figures – which encompass broadband adopters and non-adopters alike – will come as no surprise to practitioners. Librarians and community non-profits face a steady flow of people looking for help on how to create resumes, complete school assignments, or apply for a job online. Emerging applications, that revolve around artificial intelligence, smart cities, 5G, or the internet of things will only increase demands for resources to help people understand how to use them. Who will offer answers for people on these new applications without a vested interest in the answer? It is the local digital inclusion programs in a public library, schools, or non-profit.

A final thought: people respond to incentives as they adapt to new circumstances, but they typically need tools to help them do that. College students have ample incentives to learn how to negotiate campus life, but that doesn’t stop educational institutions from providing orientation programs. New employees have huge incentives to fit into a new job environment and absorb workplace culture, but that is facilitated through human resource departments. The same is true for new – and even not-so-new – online users. Digital inclusion initiatives help meet this need.

John B. Horrigan is a frequent contributor to Benton's Digital Beat and a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, with a focus on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan is also currently a consultant to the Urban Libraries Council. He served at the Federal Communications Commission as a member of the leadership team for the development of the National Broadband Plan. Additionally, he has served as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, where he focused on libraries and their impact on communities, as well as technology adoption patterns and open government data.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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