Universal Broadband Adoption: Now the Hard Work Begins

Universal broadband adoption is less about technology, and more about people

Writing in the Washington Post on October 22, Brian Fung relayed the tough reality that policymakers and the people and organizations working on broadband adoption have come to realize: “to get the last of the United States’ late adopters online will take more than infrastructure. It’ll require deep investment in digital education and painstaking one-on-one work that ultimately convinces offline Americans that the Internet is worth their time.”

From Connecting Wires to Connecting People

Universal service, the principle that all Americans should have access to communications services, has been embedded in our communications laws since 1934. In 1996, Congress reiterated and updated this commitment, directing the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, has access to advanced communications services. Congress also directed that such access should be affordable. With the recognition that high-speed Internet access is the 21st Century’s essential communications technology, the federal government has led efforts to identify gaps in broadband adoption and enacted policy changes to encourage it.

The Federal Communications Commission, in particular, has spent recent years exploring how the Universal Service Fund can be better employed to increase both broadband deployment and adoption.

  • The FCC’s Connect America Fund, formerly called the High Cost Fund, was reformed to ensure that consumers in rural, insular, and high-cost areas have access to modern communications networks capable of providing voice and broadband service, both fixed and mobile, at rates that are reasonably comparable to those in urban areas. The Connect America Fund is targeted to extend the reach of broadband to the nearly 10 million people who have no access today. Eligible carriers who serve these hard to reach areas recover some of their costs from the federal Universal Service Fund. Over the next six years, the Connect America Fund will help bring broadband to 7.5 million rural consumers in 45 states.
  • In 2014, the FCC’s E-rate program was modernized and streamlined in order to reach President Barack Obama’s goal to connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless by 2018. Schools and libraries apply for funding to discount broadband access and internal connections. Discounts for support depend on the level of poverty and whether the school or library is located in an urban or rural area. The discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services.
  • The FCC is in the process of expanding its Lifeline program, which has traditionally made basic telephone service more affordable for low income consumers, so that these households will be able to afford home broadband service. This process is expected to be completed by early 2016. To participate in Lifeline, consumers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in one of a number of means-tested assistance programs.

Although everyone in the U.S. may now have access to the Internet – be it over a fiber or phone line, a cell phone or even a satellite wireless network – not everyone has decided to subscribe to broadband service at home. Just over a year ago, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released Exploring the Digital Nation which found that broadband adoption at home in the U.S. had increased to 72 percent of households in 2012 from 69 percent in 2011. But, despite the progress, the report also identified persistent gaps in home Internet use. In 2012, a significant portion -- 28 percent -- of American households did not use broadband at home.

There are limits to the power of free markets to drive universal broadband

Gigi Sohn, a senior counselor to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, was in Scottsdale, Arizona, this week for a conference on the digital divide. She noted that for people under the age 50 and people earning more than $50,000, broadband adoption is nearly universal. But she highlighted that there are persistent adoption gaps between rural and urban areas, between low and high income households, between seniors and younger people. Sohn went on to say that the point we’ve reached in broadband adoption has been easy and the hardest work is yet to come.

“[F]or those populations that face no significant barriers, market forces can be sufficient to get us to our goal of universal adoption,” said Sohn, but the fact that “we still have significant digital divides tells us that there are limits to the power of free markets to drive universal broadband. There are significant barriers that will need to be overcome if we want broadband for all in the U.S.”

A number of factors play into the decision not to subscribe to broadband. The NTIA research found that affordability (29 percent) and access to a computer (11 percent) -- two issues policymakers are familiar with -- are key factors. But a lack of interest or perceived need (48 percent) were the top reasons for non-adoption that the NTIA identified. That's a much tougher issue for policymakers to address.

Working on Digital Inclusion

Matching affordable, available broadband with digital skills

If the gap between technology rich and technology poor was primarily physical in the 1990s, the gap, in this decade, is increasingly skills-based, Fung wrote in the Washington Post. In a recent presentation, Lee Rainie -- Director of Internet, Science, and Technology research at the Pew Research Center -- noted that 63 percent of non-adopters know that they’ll need help to get online.

Public libraries and other community centers provide free access to broadband and online literacy programs that teach important tech skills. But these community anchors struggle to afford Internet connections that provide access to their patrons. The Urban Libraries Council and National Digital Inclusion Alliance are working on a paper, to be published by the Benton Foundation this fall, exploring the role libraries play in overcoming the barriers to broadband adoption, especially in low-income, urban communities. Delving into the U.S. Census Bureau data, the Financial Times highlighted that US cities that have become synonymous with urban decay, such as Detroit and Flint in Michigan and Macon in Georgia, have household broadband subscription rates of less than 50 percent. Major urban libraries believe that home broadband is essential and are leading local broadband adoption strategies. The ULC/NDIA paper highlights the experimentation and innovative solutions the New York Public Library and the Kansas City Public Library have found to increase home broadband adoption. For both library systems, partnerships and engagement strategies with local, community-based organizations are meeting the unique needs of their residents.

Past the FCC’s efforts, the recent recommendations of the Broadband Opportunity Council also highlighted opportunities to address broadband adoption. We highlighted the action agenda for supporting broadband adoption and use in an article back in September. The National Science Foundation and National Telecommunications and Information Administration are also in the early stages of developing a national broadband research agenda including broadband adoption.

In November 2015, the Benton Foundation will also be releasing findings from a national study of digital inclusion organizations that help low-income individuals and families adopt high-speed Internet service. The study looks at eight digital inclusion organizations across the U.S. working at the important intersection between making high-speed Internet available and strengthening digital skills. These are two essential, and interrelated, components of digital inclusion, which is focused on increasing digital access, skills, and relevant content. Dr. Colin Rhinesmith, Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma and Academic Research Fellow with the Benton Foundation, finds that cost continues to be a major barrier to broadband adoption. And successful interventions will need to address “ability to pay” rather than “willingness to pay.” Rhinesmith visited organizations that are addressing broadband adoption by providing low-cost Internet access, digital literacy training, low-cost computers, and public access computing.

Four the past three years, former-Benton Foundation Executive Director Cecilia Garcia has been writing about the persistent lag in Internet adoption rates for seniors. In 2015, she and Bob Harootyan, the research manager at Senior Service America, Inc., wrote a series of articles exploring digital divide issues for seniors:

Garcia and Harootyan report that, at least for seniors, adoption programs must first address affordability, but must also incorporate peer coaching (one-on-one if possible), self-paced learning in a cordial environment, simple and clear guidance, and an emphasis on what’s relevant.

Conclusion: Less About Technology, More About People

In Arizona, Gigi Sohn announced that the FCC will explore and highlight best practices for bridging digital divides of four targeted communities -- seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities, and students. The FCC aims to develop a roadmap for these communities that can be used by advocates and the philanthropies and companies that support their work.

"This is less about technology, and more about people," Sohn said. "This is less of an infrastructure challenge, and more of a civil rights and human
rights challenge."

By Kevin Taglang.