WASHINGTON, April 4, 2009 - Making broadband applications more relevant in underserved and unserved communities could be a better use of stimulus funds than building infrastructure, a group of state and local regulatory officials Friday at a cable industry show here.
The lack of relevance to users is definitely the "largest barrier to broadband adoption," said John Horrigan, associate research director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Dealing with the issue properly will require infrastructure programs to be combined with "training and support" initiatives to improve overall digital literacy, said Horrigan.
In addition to focusing on rural areas, California Public Utility Commissioner Rachelle Chong said that "urban disadvantaged" communities is an area in which her state is actively involved through the California Emerging Technology Fund. The fund paid for computer refurbishing programs and technology training in low-income communities.
But California has bigger plans, she said, including a "digital literacy" policy for the state's entire education system.
One "big think" project that could come next year is the distribution of laptop computers to all students in the lowest performing middle schools, along with appropriate technology training for teachers, students, and their parents. Chong later said California could possibly submit "dozens" of broadband-adoption applications to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s grants program.
Tampa mayor John Marks said policies to foster adoption could come on a local level, but said he was concerned about potential conflicts with state and national policymakers. A national broadband strategy would help drive decision making, he said. "We need to have that kind of comprehensive policy... to tell us which way we want to go."
Washington, D.C., Public Services Commission Chairman Betty Ann Kane said that some urban areas could be deemed unserved.
While acknowledging that D.C. has its infrastructure built up, Kane called the idea that broadband is available in all urban areas a "myth." But "people do not come" in many places where it is available because of cost and lack of options compared to other services with higher adoption rates. "There is clearly an affordability issue," she said.
Kane said D.C is considering many solutions, including opening up the city's municipal Wi-Fi network as well as the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed Universal Service pilot project. The project would expand the Life Line and Link Up programs to include broadband.
But simply expanding broadband to libraries and community technology centers runs the risk of creating a new digital divide, she said. And as more government services migrate online, Kane warned that divide would only expand.
Programs for encouraging adoption must stay locally-focused to be successful, said Mary Beth Henry, Deputy Director at the Portland, Ore., Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management. In addition to thinking locally, success requires "compelling content that would drive people to want to use the Internet," she said.
Marks questioned the efficacy of focusing on computers as the primary on-ramp to the Internet. "Some people will never have a laptop in their home," he said, "but they will have a big screen TV." And broadband applications don't require a laptop, he said. Under a successful national policy, "everybody should be able to benefit," he said.
Public-private partnerships should play a major role in deployment and adoption programs, said Virginia State Delegate Joe May. But Kane warned that many previous partnerships are often one-time, "charity" programs. That practice must stop and give way to sustainable initiatives, she said.
And telecommunications companies must stop their opposition to municipal networks, she said. While municipal Wi-Fi can't match the speeds of broadband offered by some land-based carriers, Wi-Fi could allow people to gain access to broadband and become "future customers" for broadband providers, she said.
Partnerships are "essential," but should not preclude local government action if the private sector cannot or will not provide adequate services, said Marks.
But May pointed out that Virginia had ended up in "standoff" with incumbent carriers, who tried to ban municipal broadband.
The conflict resulted in public-private partnerships emerging as a "compromise" solution, he said. While municipalities should go forward in the absence of private sector action, May said it was important to make sure private business always get the "first crack" at broadband opportunities.
Chong pointed out that the "delicate balance" struck in the 1996 Telecommunications Act favored of competition. Municipalities may attempt their own solutions after a market failure, Chong said, but stressed that they should not be allowed to go first.