Americans are living longer and becoming increasingly dependent on a constantly-changing telecommunications environment for health care services, access to public and private services, and staying in touch with family and friends. One of our greatest challenges as a nation is ensuring that low-income seniors become actively engaged in navigating the 21st Century telecommunications infrastructure – the Internet.
The Benton Foundation and Connected Living hosted a conference on May 22, 2012, bringing together evaluators, practitioners and policymakers to exchange ideas and offer best practices, and explore how to continue working on this issue in a post-federal stimulus era. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided funding for partnerships and projects that focused on bringing unserved and underserved communities online through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).
The Department of Commerce’s Dr. Tony Wilhelm administers the BTOP program in his position at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). He offered context for a startling new reality. “In the 20th century, more years have been added to human life than in all the millennia before,” Wilhelm said. “We are living twice as long. By 2015, there will be more of us over age 60 than under age 15.”
American seniors are not part of the digital economy, Wilhelm told the conference. He commended their efforts to focus on low-income elderly, the segment of the national population most frequently on the far side of the digital divide.
Overcoming obstacles to reach seniors is the most significant challenge for the projects. Advocates and practitioners at the conference offered valuable advice in finding solutions to negotiating the logistics, including the location of labs, training courses, preparing trainers, and incentives for participation.
Two of the projects highlighted during the conference revealed that seniors themselves make the most effective trainers for other seniors, and they enjoy doing so. This finding should be noted as efforts to develop a national digital literacy corps unfold. Wilhelm announced the establishment of such an effort in the near future. Graduates of sustainable broadband adoption projects like those presented during this conference would be valuable additions to a digital literacy corps.
Affordable connectivity to robust broadband for low-income communities is a major issue that will be more difficult to address in a post-federal stimulus era. But affordability is not the only challenge. Programs around the country found that the elderly are reluctant to sign multiyear contracts for broadband service. This could be solved by providers simply offering prepaid plans or month-to-month plans for seniors.
Conference participants raised the importance of being able to measure “return on investment,” and the difficulty in doing. This summer (2012) researchers will address the question of the specific return on investment of Connected Living’s Broadband Technology Program Opportunities [BTOP] grant, serving low-income elderly in Illinois. Conference participants also noted, however, that such returns on investment need time to materialize. It would take several years in the field to accurately measure all results and all the ripple effects of the investment.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced its intention to fund broadband adoption pilot programs which are intended to inform the modernization of the Lifeline low-income support program. The broadband pilot program requires telecommunications providers to submit the applications. Conference participants consistently voiced frustration that eligible telecommunications carriers have been slow to respond. Ideally, the providers would partner with BTOP projects which have spent several years designing and implementing programs to bring low-income consumers online.
Effective practices are the focus of her work, said NTIA’s Dr. Francine Jefferson, describing her agency’s efforts to measure outcomes from the BTOP investments. One measure will be an increase in the number of subscribers to a broadband connection. Dr. Jefferson told the conference that NTIA also seeks programs that can be self-sustaining and able to adapt to changing circumstances. Most importantly, she urged all Americans to think of broadband use as our most common public utility.
Panelists discussed the possibility of bringing seniors to the conversation about digital literacy through health literacy. This is an important component of the Affordable Care Act. Echoing Jefferson, one participant said computers provide such vital government services, that broadband access should be treated as a public utility. Every computer is a deliverer of government services, said another. Without the use of technology and access to broadband, low-income elderly will not informed voters, health care consumers, shoppers, or global citizens.
A goal of the conference is to inform the FCC’s efforts to transition “Lifeline,” its low-income subsidy program from phone service to broadband, a process that is currently underway. Immediately following the conference, The Benton Foundation began to organize a working group that will stay in regular contact, sharing best practices and leads to resources. Policy goals, Benton stressed, should focus on training and access, not on the technological components, which will always evolve and change.
Advocates and practitioners at the conference uniformly agreed that the BTOP grants covered a lot of ground quickly in terms of getting low-income seniors broadband access. Thomas Kamber, Older Adults Technology Services, emphasized that the federal investment in spreading the public utility of broadband must continue for the long haul. That will allow partnerships to evolve to meet goals, he said, and not require re-learning the funding wheel every time federal spending patterns change.
“Everybody is looking at how to survive the next 12 months, which is what all of us are doing – to some degree, every day – in this environment,” Kamber said. “There has got to be a framework that includes both funding on the front end, and practitioners that have succeeded in this doing the work delivering services.”