WASHINGTON, Thursday, July 26, 2012 – Last week, the fourth year of the Broadband Breakfast Club Series came to an end with a timely panel on “Bringing Broadband Adoption to the Nation’s Underserved Population.” Panelists from the private, nonprofit and state government sectors came together to discuss what can be done to promote broadband usage in order to connect the one third of our nation that still does not have a broadband connection at home.
While physical access to broadband connections remains a major concern for adoption, the panel focused most of its attention on the other prongs of adoption which involve cost education and relevance. Efforts to subsidize cost of service cost of hardware along with digital literacy efforts were the primary concern of the panelists.
Just last week, Chairman Genachowski of the Federal Communications Commission and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, announced a nationwide digital literacy partnership between the 2,800 American Job Centers and Connect2Compete (C2C) extending the digital literacy training coalition to thousands of communities across the country
Drew Clark, Founder and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com, as well as the Executive Director of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, started off the discussion with a review of the past four years of the Broadband Breakfast Club — and the videos are archived on the BroadbandBreakfast.com web site.
Clark highlighted a comment made by Jonathan Adelstein, former FCC Commissioner and current Administrator for the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, at the June 2010 Broadband Breakfast Club, in which Adelstein spoke about rural electrification requiring federal investment in infrastructure but required an active campaign to promote electricity adoption. “At the time” added Clark, “rural America needed to be educated trained and sold on the benefits and value of household electricity consumption.”
The C2C initiative as well as proposed reforms to the Universal Service Fund, particularly the Lifeline and Link Up Programs, are two key collaborative efforts that shape much of the current discussion on adoption.
Clark added some background about the $8 billion dollar a year Universal Service fund, noting that most of the fund covers the high cost program which is in the process of being re vamped through the Connect America Fund, but $1.2 billion annually goes toward Lifeline and Link Up and is devoted to making basic telephone service available to low income consumers. The broader question raised by Clark was, how to change universal service in the broadband era?
In summarizing some of the thoughts of Blair Levin, godfather of the National Broadband Plan, Clark focused on Levin’s recommendations that called for shifting up to $15.5 billion over the next decade from the High Cost program to broadband. While current Lifeline is focused solely on cost, adopting broadband is about cost but also about digital literacy.
Clark quoted Levin when he asked, “how can we have low income broadband policy that embeds reciprocal commitments, mitigates dead weight loss, is sustainable, honors the dignity of those participating, and is based on today’s rather than yesterday’s logic.” Levin’s four suggestions included, the use of reverse auctions to reduce price, a concerted training effort to enable those who wish to learn, to use it, a multi-sourced mini voucher program to further lower costs like subsidies based on an agreement to use broadband and finally a presidential directive to eliminate paper within federal agencies within five years forcing people to adopt and go online to access these services. Levin also noted that the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration should be charged with overseeing the training and voucher programs that would be funded in part by private and nonprofit partners.
Talking on behalf of the Partnership for Connected Illinois, Clark said that collecting data and mapping broadband “ is just a tool to promote better broadband and better lives. Our mission to collect and promote broadband is really useless unless it has an impact on facilitating collaboration for better deployment and education for usage.”
About 22% of non adopters cite digital literacy type barriers that prevent their adoption, this group include those that say they are worried about all the bad things that could happen when they use the internet. That might be distinguished from relevance, these are the people who say, the internet is a waste of time.
Clark noted that PCI has applied to participate in the FCC’s Broadband Lifeline Pilot Program, “We call this ‘Better Broadband, Better Lifeline,’ and we are working with several telecommunications providers within the state to meet the needs of 35 rural counties by administering one on one computer training for new users and leading an outreach effort to enlist those not subscribing.” They plan to bring together refurbished computers, digital literacy training and subsidized internet service through the FCC Pilot Program.
Amina Fazullah, Policy Counsel of The Benton Foundation, Cheryl Leanza, President of A Learned Hand, Sonja Murray, Executive VP and Chief Program Officer at Connect2Compete, Bret Perkins, Vice President of External and Government Affairs at Comcast, Rick Schadelbauer, Economist at the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) and Jason Whittet, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts broadband Institute made up the panel of experts for the morning’s discussion.
Fazullah began the discussion with an update of some of the most recent changes made to the Lifeline program at the FCC, including a number of proposed cost saving measures, updates to the eligibility and verification processes and changes to the way low income consumers can participate. She specifically cited the clarification of the one subsidy per household with the same address issue which had previously prevented those living in group homes, homeless shelters and senior facilities from participating in the program.
The FCC has launched their Lifeline and Link Up Pilot projects for broadband which propose to change the program from a voice subsidy to a broadband subsidy. Fazullah said that all the applications for the Pilot Project were received by the Commission as of last Monday and over half the country is represented in the applications. She references a mix of rural and urban applications that all seem to have a combination of support for providing broadband service, as well as partnering with community organizations to provide equipment and digital literacy training.
Once the projects are implemented there are two rounds of data collection which will hopefully help move FCC forward in plans to modernize lifeline. “Hopefully all this data will show that just having a cost subsidy is not enough to transition low income and vulnerable populations to broadband. There are a lot of different components to being able to utilize broadband properly; it is more than just having the money to connect,” said Fazullah.
Only $25 million out of the total $1.2 billion of the Lifeline Fund will be placed toward the research piece to transition the fund to broadband. These projects will provide data on how much of the fund needs to go toward subsidy, digital literacy and equipment, noted Fazullah. She also highlighted the legal question of authority and what can be done with the money under the constructs of the USF and the FCC. “Can the money even be used for equipment and digital literacy support” added Fazullah.
Murray stressed the need for really understanding the different communities that we go after for adoption. There needs to be a focus on creating relevant content as well as engaging younger populations to make them core learners. These members of the community, noted Murray, are the digital connectors. She expressed how they learned to interpret the technology that was most relevant to their community and then they were charged with the task of going and spreading that knowledge to their elders.
Murray highlighted the fact that C2C was a response and understanding of the FCC that digital literacy and access to technology is important. Their first partners were cable companies that began providing subsidized broadband for families with children taking part in national school lunch voucher programs.
Perkins noted that Comcast’s program, Internet Essentials, was a response to the realization that connecting to broadband was a function of cost of service, cost of equipment, and digital literacy especially when it came to low income families. Comcast launched its initiative across 4000 school districts in about 39 states and found it critical to partner with nonprofits, governments, and school districts to address the broader issues of adoption
When asked specifically about the seriousness of relevance, Perkins said “many people in low income households do have some disposable income but if they have lived their life without broadband internet why would they need to change now?” Part of the answer, he noted, is for your children, for job search, and healthcare. “Many things we take for granted, require some hand holding when it comes to non-adopters.”
Leanza wanted the audience to step back and take a look at the broader scope of problem. The numbers she put forth show that 100 million people are not adopting broadband and 46 million people are living in poverty. She added that while those living below the poverty line might have some disposable income, the choices they make will probably not support adoption of broadband. “While training is useful, until we eliminate poverty, cost will still be a major issue. Even if digital literacy is solved we will not solve the issue of adoption without a broad commitment to cost,” said Leanza.
Leanza’a broader point is was that larger scale solutions will need to happen on the federal level. She commended Comcast for doing an excellent job of getting 41,000 people to participate in Internet Essentials, but, adoption is a 100 million person problem. “Corporate philanthropy is excellent but we will not be able to really tackle this goal without a federal policy change.”
Clark then asked the panelist why was it that if 46 million people are in poverty only 10 million receive subsidies for Lifeline telephone voice service.
Fazullah believes that a big barrier has been awareness as well as getting the social service organizations to include Lifeline in the bundle of services they help enroll people in. Additionally Fazullah clarified that the 46 million is the number that is eligible for Lifeline, but that does not mean they are not receiving telephone service, many of them might be paying for it themselves.
Leanza believes that part of the problem is due to different rates in different states, subscription rates vary a lot by state. In some states the telephone rates are already very low and in others, states might be offering their own subsidies
Schadelbauer from NTCA said that 5 different applications for the Lifeline Pilot Program were submitted on behalf of their member companies. He also realized the challenges they face with the Pilot Program dollars only being used to subsidize service, rather than training or equipment. The NCTA applications aim to look at the differences in discount options, whether a sliding scale discount works better than a fixed rate discount. The carriers in their proposals have agreed to cover the cost of the modems while the commission funds would cover installation costs. Additionally they partnered with Connected Nation to help with hardware and online training. Consumers would complete taining through the offices of the carriers and receive an ID number that would then qualify them to purchase a refurbished computer for $119.
Schadelbauer anticipated that the proposed projects would cover approximately 1000 customers, so in order to comply with the FCC’s request for a control group; they decided to use lifeline eligible customers who have subscribed to broadband over the past 12 months.
Comcast is offering subsidized services for $9.95 a month and are enrolling families eligible for the school lunch programs for 3 year blocks. These families however can be grandfathered in till their last child graduates High School. For hardware, Perkins explained that Comcast is offering vouchers to purchase computers for $150, but digital literacy seems to present to greatest challenge. One lesson they learned last year was that working through community based partners presents the best solution that meet specific community needs. The number of community based organizations doing this type of work over the past couple of years has proliferated.
Murray believes to truly thrive in the global community we need to keep thinking about innovation. There will always be a need for digital literacy, there is always going to be some new technology and some new application that we are going to need to be educated about. “We see this as a moment in time to leverage where everyone is,” said Murray, “it’s like a perfect storm of resources, government, private partners, public partners, that can come together and think about how to create a sustainable platform for what we don’t even know is about to happen.”
Whittet from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) notes that a great thing to come out of the stimulus has been the state broadband offices. He urges many in the private sector to think of them as partners that can help bring together local entities.
With NTIA funding, MBI was able to create a broadband adoption website Mass VetsAdvisor.org for the 400,000 Massachusetts’s resident Veterans. The website streamlines all of the state and federal benefits for veterans. Whittet explained that because everyone wants to help veterans, it is hard to decipher what is real and what is a scam. MBI has gone through all the programs and accounted for the ones that are real and accurate. For those veterans not from Massachusetts, added Whittet, one can go through and remove the state benefits options to access a consolidated listing off all federal benefits.
For the digital literacy part of the program, MBI is partnering with veterans organizations and other frontline service providers. Every city and town in the state has a veteran’s service office and they have been engaged to provide digital literacy training. Massachusetts has also recruited the help of job creation centers and community college to aid in the digital literacy efforts.
In addressing a question about state and federal government services moving to an online platform, Leanza, highlighted an example of a librarian that had been helping community members with immigration forms online, but was thrown off by the number of times immigration and Customs would change the layout of their page and move different forms around. “Once government places information online, the problem still remains of having someone handy to help with the access and navigation of these sites.
With regards to the issue of speed, Schadelbauer expressed the importance of certainty and long term planning for rural and underserved carriers to build and update the networks to keep up with community needs.
In Massachusetts, Whittet highlighted the 1300 mile fiber optic network that was built to connect the western communities through their anchor institutions. He added that while data on speed is being collected at a census block level, he believes with the two years remaining in their funding the project should be re purposed to look at address level data to find out what is happening at the home.
An audience member asked the panel about the need for more money from the universal service fund to cover the cost of real broadband adoption.
Schadelbauer responded by stating that first there needs to be money made available to incumbent carrier in order to provide service in these underserved areas, “you need to have access before you can have the adoption.”
Schadelbauer believes that the data collected from these pilot program will be very informative. Right now the amount of money to be spent to have a real effect on adoption is in the experiment phase. There has not been enough data collected on price points for service and hardware, noted Schadelbauer.
Leanza pointed out that money for hardware and service is easy to calculate but money for digital literacy is a lot harder. She is not sure the FCC is the correct lace to even house a digital literacy program. “Right now Comcast is offering $10 internet and the Lifeline subsidy is also $10 but under the current regulatory structure Comcast would not receive any of that money.
Murray ended the discussion by asking “what are the outcomes we are looking for?” Once we agree on those the solutions will follow.