By Don S. Samuelson and Andrew Lowenstein
LAKE FOREST, Ill., January 11, 2010 - Last July when the Round 1 of Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program was announced, Don Samuelson suggested that public housing authorities across the country ought to be applying to BTOP for financial assistance to promote the use of the Internet by their senior residents:
Every public housing authority in the United States should apply for stimulus funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Agency to set up a program to promote the benefits and use of the Internet for its senior housing residents. The goal should be to make the case for the practical benefits of broadband and the Internet sufficiently compelling so that seniors would want a computer and Internet connection in their individual units. The use of the Internet should be as valuable as a TV or a phone. This is a “value proposition” that remains to be made.
It appears that no one followed the suggestion. There were no sustainable adoption proposals in the first round of BTOP for senior housing. We’ve since updated our analysis and refined our thinking.
The Missing Definitions of “Adoption” and “Sustainable Adoption.”
While “Sustainable Adoption” is one of the three categories of grant assistance contemplated by BTOP, there is no explicit definition of “sustainable adoption,” or even “adoption” in the Round 1 Notice of Funds Availability or the Sustainable Adoption Application materials.
Mr. Samuelson commented on this omission in his response to the NTIA request for comments in November of 2009:
“It is critical that the criteria to be used in evaluating sustainable adoption be clearly set out in the submissions section and in the section dealing with the evaluation criteria. For example, what does it require in terms of broadband and Internet literacy and use to say that an “adoption” has occurred? What must be shown to demonstrate that an adoption has become sustainable or is scalable?”
Two of the statutory purposes of BTOP are: (1) to provide broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment and support to vulnerable populations (e.g. residents of public housing); and (2) to stimulate demand for broadband.
The Round 1 Sustainable Adoption Application Provides Hints of the Definition.
There are clear “hints” of what BTOP policy makers are looking for in the Round 1 Sustainable Broadband Adoption Application. In Section #7, the Executive Summary, a statement is requested of the “problem” related to improving broadband service adoption rates. It also requests an explanation of the potential broadband subscribers your project will reach. The emphasis is on increasing the number of subscribers.
In Section #8, Project Purpose, the emphasis is on increasing broadband access in unserved and underserved areas, and providing “education, awareness, training, access, equipment and support to … vulnerable populations.” The statements can best be read as complimentary.
In Section #13, the questions is asked: “How many total new home subscribers (household accounts) to broadband do you expect to generate through the used of BTOP funds over the life of the program funded?” In Sections #17 and #18, the questions relate to the extent of training programs and the numerical reach of the training. Sections #24, #25 and #26 relate to the targets of the awareness campaign, the methods for increasing awareness [of the benefits of broadband and the Internet] and the numerical results of the awareness campaign.
The sustainable broadband adoption application also asks for program explanations and strategies with respect to access, devices, awareness raising and training. However, the bottom line appears to occur in Section #27 when the applicant is asked: “What is the total cost of your project per new subscriber (household, individual or institutional) or new end-user?” Therefore, it can be inferred that “adoption” equates to becoming a new subscriber, but the definition of “sustainable” remains unclear.
The Chicken Crossing the Road (Digital Divide) Metaphor.
The answer to the question – why did the chicken cross the road – is that the chicken saw sufficient value on the other side of the road to take the trouble and assume the risk of crossing the road. The analysis of why vulnerable populations adopt and sustain broadband/internet usage involves similar calculations. Prospective users have to see that there are important and practical benefits available through the Internet worth the time, effort and cost of getting online and using the Internet.
For example, for seniors – the largest underserved segment by age according to a 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project - need to see practical values resulting from their use of the Internet in one or several of the following areas: (1) staying connected to children and grandchildren; (2) keeping in touch with neighbors and friends; (3) getting free e-mail services; (4) researching interests through web-accessing search engines; (5) accessing information on health care; (6) keeping current on Medicare, Medicaid and prescription drugs; (7) using government financial support programs; (8) accessing online entertainment and education programs; (9) keeping connected to churches, hobbies and other social networks; and (10) using tools for budgeting, banking and bill paying.
These broadband and internet applications will continue to grow over time. Once a person joins the “online community” they will continue to learn of new and exciting opportunities available over the Internet which will evolve over time. The “senior chicken” will be increasingly grateful that it is on the online side of the digital divide.
Is Crossing The Digital Divide “Sustainable Broadband Adoption”?
After a comprehensive intervention strategy which the authors will discuss in a subsequent article,. the senior will have to be shown the benefits of the Internet. Basic computer skills will have been taught first time users. The senior will have learned how to use the Internet and will have an e-mail or messaging account to connect with others.
Is this the end point that the BTOP application has in mind when it is funding sustainable broadband adoption proposals? Is it enough to know how to perform a Google search or subscribe to a free e-mail account? Does it qualify to use the computers and the Internet connectivity in the building’s computer learning center or in a local library? One could become an active user of the Internet without having a personal computer or an individual connection to the Internet. Is that sustainable broadband adoption?
We believe there is a difference between getting off line individuals “online” and crossing the digital divide and achieving a sustainable broadband adoption objective. In achieving sustainable adoption, the individual – with or without government subsidy programs like the Universal Service Fund – has to find sufficient value in the service to be willing to pay for the service.
The service has to be sufficiently valuable to warrant an initial subscription and the costs of a device and training. More importantly, to achieve “sustainability,” the value of broadband services has to be remain sufficiently valuable to justify the ongoing costs of connectivity, equipment and content.
Returning to the Issue of “Sustainable Broadband Adoption”
It’s clear from the Sustainable Broadband Adoption application that BTOP has an interest in promoting increases in broadband service adoption rates and in generating new subscribers. The awareness of benefits, an e-mail address and active Internet use are all important milestones in coming to the conclusion that broadband and the Internet are essential tools in a 21st Century life and in the active participation in government programs and in the networks that make up community life.
As with the origins of Universal Service in the 30s, there is a public interest in maximum broadband participation. There appears to be significant legislative interest at this time in extending the application of the LinkUp and Lifeline telephone subsidies to broadband services.
The milestone points are likely “necessary” but not “sufficient” parts of the process of achieving “sustainable broadband adoption.” It is useful to identify these way-stations on the path to sustainable adoption, measure achievement in reaching these milestones and give credit to proposals which are effective in creating a meaningful “pipeline” of individuals on their way to sustainable adoption.
But ultimately, the acid test should be the number of individuals who have concluded that broadband is sufficiently important to their lives to invest in connectivity and a device whereby they are “subscribers” to broadband.
For senior living communities, once successful adoption programs bring broadband to seniors in their apartments, the buildings can enjoy cost savings and improved operating efficiencies. First, in order to embrace adoption programs, both owners of senior buildings and residents need to appreciate how Internet benefits are meaningful to them. Building owners need to see cost savings sufficient to justify capital investments. Seniors need to experience benefits to warrant the cost of a broadband subscription. These benefits become “sustainable” once continuous and growing benefits exceed costs and owners of senior buildings and seniors themselves pay for the cost of broadband services.
Editor’s Note: The preceeding guest commentary appears by special invitation of Broadband Census News. Neither BroadbandCensus.com nor BroadbandBreakfast.com endorse the views in the commentary. We invite officials, experts and individuals interested in the state of broadband to offer commentaries of their own. To offer a commentary, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Not all commentaries may be published.
Don S. Samuelson of DSSA Stratategies has more than 30 years of experience in government-assisted housing and real estate development. Andrew Lowenstein is with MyWay Village, Inc. Samuelson has a passion for applying broadband to provide solutions in the fields of education and training. E-mail him at DSSA310@aol.com, or contact him by phone at 847-420-1732.