WASHINGTON March 2, 2011 - Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies held a panel on Wednesday on how the federal government should promote broadband adoption and access to underserved communities. The panel served as an update the National Broadband Plan, which came out one year ago.
“The biggest mistake we made when working on the plan was using the current framework to solve tomorrow’s problems” said keynote speaker, Blair Levin, one of the authors of the National Broadband Plan. “We need to phase out the Lifeline and Link-Up programs and come up with something new.”
The Lifeline and Link-Up programs provide rebates to consumers to lower the cost of telephone service. The National Broadband Plan recommended transitioning these programs to cover broadband in addition to voice service.
The old models are geared toward telephone service so they focus on cost and access; in contrast. In contrast, broadband requires a knowledgeable user, presenting a more complicated problem to solve. Levin proposed the full overhaul of the universal service system with a focus on demand and usage, rather than simple access.
“Rather than giving [USF subsidies] to companies we should be giving people vouchers to choose their preferred service,” Levin said. “Instead of just giving people money we also need to ensure they are taking steps to improve their digital skills. We should provide additional funds to people who complete digital literacy classes or job training.”
Levin also emphasized that while some programs will not work, pilots and trials are necessary to learn about what does.
“While no administrator wants to work on a project that fails, we need to figure out what works and what does not so we fund the right programs," he said. "We need to learn what adoption tools are best for each community.”
During the larger panel discussion, Scott Wallsten, VP for research at the Technology Policy Institute and former National Broadband Task Force Economics Director, echoed Levin’s sentiment about pilot programs and evaluation.
“The NTIA needs to be given additional funds to provide in depth evaluation of their adoption programs," Wallston said. "We also need to think about evaluation when creating new pilots so we can learn what’s working.”
US Telecom Association CEO Walter B. McCormick, Jr, also expressed the need for better evaluation, noting that there has been "an uptick in adoption, but we don’t know why.”
When moderator Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee asked the panel about possible adoption solutions, CTIA- The Wireless Association VP, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, said that wireless may be the best solution.
“Minorities are embracing mobile broadband through cell phones much more than other groups.” Guttman-McCabe said, “Wireless will be the bridge that spans the digital divide.”
“It’s great that people can email or watch videos on their phones,” Kimberly Marcus of Rainbow PUSH Coalition responded, “but really they need to be able to apply to jobs and access government services - and this means using computers connected to some type of broadband.”
Paul de Sa, Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis in the Federal Communications Commission, emphasized that the underserved community faces the three interconnected problems of access, cost and usage. “We need to look at these issues as part of a whole rather than individual or distinct problems.”