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Promoting the Use of the Internet by Seniors in Public Housing

in Broadband Stimulus/Expert Opinion/NTIA by

Editor’s Note: The following guest commentary appears by special invitation of BroadbandCensus.com. BroadbandCensus.com does not necessary endorse the views in the commentary, but invites officials, experts and individuals interested in the state of broadband to offer commentaries of their own. To offer a commentary, please e-mail commentary@broadbandcensus.com. Not all commentaries may be published.

The staff of BroadbandCensus.com has produced a four-page report on the essentials of the Broadband Initiative Program-Broadband Technology Opportunities Program Notice of Funds Availability, which is available for purchase for $25.00, at http://broadbandcensus.com/special-reports.

By Don Samuelson, Guest Commentary, BroadbandCensus.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill., July 26, 2009 – Every public housing authority in the United States should apply for stimulus funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration 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.

Accessing the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program for the Senior Market

Two of the statutory purposes of BTOP are to provide broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment and support to vulnerable populations (e.g. residents of public housing), and to stimulate demand for broadband. An overview of “Sustainable Broadband Adoption” and the actual application can be found at: http://broadbandusa.sc.egov.usda.gov/presentations/SustainableAdoption.pdf and
http://broadbandusa.sc.egov.usda.gov/download_app.htm.

While there are 47 elements in the application, the key information to be provided involves 20 pages of unique project narrative covering: executive summary (2 pages), project purpose (2 pages), innovative approach (1 page), number and qualifications of instructors (1 page), awareness campaign (2 pages), impact evaluation (1 page), technical strategy (2 pages), management team resumes (1 page per person), organizational readiness (1 page), project timeline and challenges (2 pages), budget narrative (2 pages) and budget reasonableness (1 page). Further guidance on these topics can be found at “Grant Guidelines” for BTOP: www.broadbandusa.gov in Section C: Sustainable Adoption at pages 88 to 114.

The basic objective of “sustainable adoption” for public housing authorities is to increase the number of public housing residents using broadband and the Internet and to increase their use of the Internet on a sustained basis. The most obvious market to be served are the seniors currently living in public housing buildings. The core “market” could be easily extended to include seniors with vouchers, seniors on the waiting list, seniors using local senior centers, and seniors living in the census tracts where the senior building is located.

Since the purpose of the BTOP program is to increase the adoption and use by seniors of the Internet, a baseline will have to be established for the target markets. Demographic information is required in the application. There needs to be additional information collected – on an individual basis – on the current capacities of residents to use computers and the Internet. Do residents have an e-mail address? Do they have an internet connection? Do they have a personal computer? How are they currently using their internet connection? A base line of fluency and interests can be easily established, through a survey form. Good market research should be the start of program outreach.

The Determination of Customer Interest

Seniors are going to have to see practical value – to them – through the use of the Internet in order for them to get involved in a serious way. I’ve found that interest can be best generated by determining the current interests of seniors. How do they spend their time now? What are their interests? What are their problems? Are there ways that their current activities and interests can be enhanced through broadband and the Internet?

The goal is to demonstrate how current activities and interests can be made easier, faster and less costly through the use of the Internet. I’ve developed a formula for this: Buyer Satisfaction is a Function of Perceived Value times Frequency of Use.

In the senior computer learning centers I’ve operated in the past, the “hot buttons” of interest to seniors have been: (1) easier connections with children, grandchildren and the extended family; (2) online access to government resources and services; (3) online healthcare information and contacts; (4) social networking in areas of common interests; (5) the development of new skill, e.g. learning to type; online education/training; and (6) games and hobbies. The way to start is with one-on-one conversations to find out the interests of Senior A, and then consider how those interests could be advanced by the Internet. Then go through the same process with seniors B through Z. At the end of 26 interviews – easily done within a week – there would be a comprehensive collection of resident interests that could become the foundation for the Internet instructional programs. The skills to be developed would already be known to have relevance.

The Elements of the Building Learning Network and Conducting Outreach

The physical network to be developed will consist of a Computer Training Center, computing devices in the individual living units and internet connections to instructional materials, applications and storage. In the CTC there will be: (1) an internet connection; (2) an instructor’s station; (3) desktop devices, such as personal computers, refurbished PCs, or “thin clients.” The benefits of thin clients are related to initial purchasing costs, reduced maintenance costs and the simplicity of upgrading and adding software.

The CTC will have an electronic whiteboard, so that teaching/learning can be provided to an larger-sized audience of 24 to 30 people, than the four to eight that can actually sit in front of a computer in the center. The most important part of the network will be the devices with internet connections so that individual seniors can have continual access to broadband and the Internet, with the on-site CTC performing the functions of initial training and instruction in special applications. The bulk of the work will take place in the individual unit when seniors have concluded that the benefits of the Internet and broadband are increasingly indispensable to their needs and interests.

Initially, communications concerning internet benefits will be accomplished by flyers, white-board presentations, small group meetings and word-of-mouth. As more residents get on-line and as case-examples and testimonials are developed, an increasing amount of outreach can take place on-line, with enthusiastic support from children, grandchildren and friends who are thrilled to have mom or grandma online.

After initial steps are taken, the seniors can be directed to two four-week courses that
create a foundation for computer and internet literacy. The objective is to teach and certify the basics resulting in a “driver’s license” to navigate the information superhighway. The goal of the training is to develop the skills so that seniors can further their individual interests that prompted them to participate in the program in the first place. The first form of training is formal classroom instruction using the white board and computers. The second would involve open lab time with advanced seniors helping their colleagues. The third will take place in the individual units when the senior accepts the values of the computer, broadband and the Internet.

Some Thoughts on Infrastructure and Costs

The broadband connection to the building can be made to a local area network in the computer center, and through a combination of Ethernet and wireless connections throughout the building. Substantial savings in equipment acquisition and maintenance can be realized if “thin clients” are used in both the computer training center and in the individual units. The storage, computational power and software applications could be hosted in internet-accessible servers on-site or through a “cloud computing” system. The objective is to make access to the instructional tools and software applications available anywhere there is an internet browser connection – at any time and any place.

All of these considerations have to be developed into the technical plan outlined in the BTOP application. All of the specifications and program costs for hardware, software, connectivity and instruction have to be set out in the program budget and explained in detail in a budget narrative.

The goal of the BTOP sustainable adoption program is to make the value proposition sufficiently compelling that seniors will move from building-supported training to an internet-connected device in their units that are central to their lives.

Donald S. Samuelson has more than 30 years of experience in government-assisted housing and real estate development. He 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.

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