Building the Fact Base: Broadband Adoption and Use

John Horrigan, the Consumer Research Director for the Federal Communications Commission's Omnibus Broadband Initiative, moderated the August 19 National Broadband Plan workshop on the state of broadband adoption and use. The aim, he said, was to help the FCC think about who has broadband in the US and who doesn't. And, for those who do use broadband, what they are doing with it. Horrigan was joined by experts from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Department of Agriculture, CTIA (the wireless industry's lobbying association), Verizon, the Knight Center of Digital Excellence, and the University of Illinois.

Susannah Fox from Pew began the discussion with survey data indicating that 63% of US adults now use broadband in their home while just 7% access the Internet through dial-up services. The USDA's Peter Stenberg presented data on the different broadband adoption rates in metro vs rural areas. Even considering household incomes, rural households lag behind the rest of the country in broadband adoption. Fox highlighted that 55% of survey respondents said that broadband is very important for either communication with health care providers, finding out what's going on in a community, economic growth, communicating with government officials, or sharing views with others. She said non-users most often cite factors relating to relevance of the Internet to their lives as reasons for non-adoption.

CTIA's Christopher Guttman-McCabe noted the explosion of consumer adoption of mobile broadband services. 87% of all Americans subscribe to a wireless phone service and more than 89% of US cell phone subscribers are data-capable. Guttman-McCabe noted FCC data that finds that between June 2007 and June 2008, 76% of the new high-speed access lines were mobile wireless subscribers. He said that soon half of all broadband connections in the US will be wireless.

Guttman-McCabe's presentation and later remarks asked if wireless broadband use is sufficient. His argument, representing wireless service providers, is that, given consumers' choices, yes, it is. Karen Archer Perry countered that perhaps wireless isn't enough.

Verizon's Link Hoewing's presentation suggested that America's broadband adoption is going just great. He presented charts noting broadband steep penetration curve and increased use.

Karen Archer Perry, the Director of the Connected Communities Team at the Knight Center of Digital Excellence, suggested that the FCC must measure the intensity of broadband use. Health care and education, she said, will be great drivers in broadband use, but, in education, for example, the use of technology goes way beyond PowerPoint presentations. Beyond access, she said, the National Broadband Plan must address motivation, user confidence and enrichment. Knight Center experience has taught Archer Perry that in a given community of non-users, half the people are ready to get online with a little help and that these people will help drag the other half online. The help, she said, can take many forms: training, computers, lowering the cost of connections, and literacy.

U of I's Kate Williams completed the prepared presentations with a discussion of her research into how local communities use information technology. Professor Williams suggested a paradigm shift: from looking just at individual IT use to looking at social uses; from collecting data after use to collecting data at the time and place of use; from researchers disseminating their findings to other to many parties generating and using findings; and from proprietary data and analysis to a "data commons."

A Question & Answer session followed these presentations. The FCC's Horrigan asked first how the FCC can measure the impact of broadband. Karen Archer Perry replied by reiterating a definition of unserved/underserved areas first presented to the Commission by the Consumer Federation of America's Mark Cooper:

Unserved = any home that does not subscribe to Internet service
Underserved = any home that does not subscribe to broadband service

Archer Perry added that she's also define a home as underserved if it cannot access the applications to improve health care, education, etc.

On the question of what additional information is necessary to understand current and future adoption and utilization, Guttman-McCabe asked the Commission for a "harmonization" of data requests from government agencies including the FCC and the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

But panelists also discussed what is not known, even about what is already known. For example, Link Hoewing's presentation noted high Internet use by people younger that 43 (described as Gen X and Gen Y). But we don't know much about unserved or underserved people in the demographic or if a significant number of these people refuse to use the Internet for some reason. And with people over 60, a question was raised if anyone knows what motivates broadband users in this demographic. Hoewing said access to financial information and travel websites were key motivators, but, counteri-ntuitively, health care is not because health care applications and services are not easy to use. Fox highlighted that many non-Internet users do not even know other people who go online. These deep pockets of non-users need to be addressed as many times peers help motivate adoption.