WASHINGTON, December 11, 2009 - In order to provide universal broadband, national policymakers will need to better understand and motivate under-indexed minority groups. That was the message at the Internet Innovation Alliance’s ‘Universal Broadband: Access for All Americans’ conference on Thursday.
“It’s a question of knowledge and accessibility just as much as it is affordability," said Cornell Belcher, pollster and President of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies.
A study conducted by Brilliant Corners showed that among non-adopting blacks and Hispanics, 14 percent did not know how to use the Internet and 32 percent saw no need. Interestingly, many of these same respondents said that they would be interested in increasing use of the Internet if classes were provided.
Digital literacy classes may not be the only way to get under-indexed groups online, providers and policymakers can appeal to their interests.
“Maybe if you show there is some specific area of education that appeals to your specific demographic, maybe you can get some people online,” said Denmark West, President of Digital Media at BET.
“If there is enough of an entertainment value associated with a certain device or service, that can motivate people to get online,” he said.
This can be done in a variety of ways: from imbedding educational content, to marketing job skills in a popular show like ‘The Apprentice’, to simply appealing to sports fans.
“At AOL, we used sports to drive users,” said Jimmy Lynn, who at America Online started the first online sports news service.
This raised a question from panel moderator Jeff Johnson of BET fame, “How do we connect broadband to opportunity instead of just to entertainment?”
West reminded the panel that broadband is really just about access at a high data rate. “If you think about broadband as a means rather than an end then you can get a more productive dialogue.”
Sports and entertainment can’t force people to take advantage of the full capabilities of broadband, but FCC reports have clearly shown that adoption is a huge hurdle, especially for minorities, and that once people have adopted broadband they are unlikely to leave it.
Perhaps the desire to follow their favorite soccer team can motivate Latinos to adopt, or fans of a popular music artist will want to follow them more closely online, panelists said. These simple steps could put them and their children in a position to better enjoy the benefits of broadband down the road.
Some of these benefits would hopefully include increased employment. As jobs increasingly shift to online-only applications and require tech-savvy skill sets, digital literacy will be essential for those seeking to succeed in future markets. “The problem of structural unemployment is going to be exacerbated if we don’t find some way to help those demographics,” said Elaine Kamarck of the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
As broadband increasingly becomes a staple of the modern workplace, money invested in broadband is poised to reap greater rewards than bailout money given to help technologies that are becoming increasingly obsolete. Integrating these groups of fledgling broadband users into modern industries will not be easy, however.
One solution to this problem, especially in the healthcare industry, could be the use of local systems like community colleges, panelists said. 50 percent of nurses and 80 percent or first responders are community college graduates and these colleges can be “force multipliers” in local markets.
Net neutrality was did not become a major topic for discussion. Fabian Núnez, Speaker Emeritus of the California State Assembly insisted that, “Net neutrality is distracting to the more important issue: getting everyone online.”
In spite of the obstacles that exist, including the worrisome statistics about minority adoption, the overall tone of the conference was high-energy optimistic.
“There’s nothing wrong with broadband in America,” said former FCC commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, “that can’t be fixed by what’s right with broadband in America.”
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