July 12, 2012 – If 2008 marked the dawn of our national “broadband moment,” this summer and fall may well be the beginning of a new era of broadband adoption and usage.
A major national initiative, dubbed “Connect2Compete,” is just beginning to find its footing. In a webinar two weeks ago, this collaboration of corporate, philanthropic and community leaders delineated their mission, goals and timetables. It is to use the “power of the internet to improve the lives of low income Americans and their ability to thrive in the global economy.”
Additional, the Federal Communications Commission is in the midst of launching an exciting Broadband Lifeline pilot program. This $25 million pilot program could help pave the way for a Universal Broadband Fund. Such a fund could do for internet connectivity what the Universal Service Fund, in an earlier era, did for making the telephone an anchor of American life.
But first, I must say that I use the term “broadband adoption” with some caution. Every time I Google that phrase, the search results are good… it’s just that the advertisements are all off. What I see instead is information about the adoption of children – which is a vital and easy-to-grasp societal good.
But the benefit of proselyting broadband usage can be somewhat harder to explain.
It might be best to see through analogy to rural electrification. This key point I learned from Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, when he keynoted the Broadband Breakfast Club in June 2010:
Just as rural electrification required federal investment in infrastructure to bring power lines to farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed to engage in an active campaign of “electricity adoption.” Rural America not only needed to get electricity to its doorstep, it needed to be trained and sold on the benefits and value that would come from household electricity consumption.
Seen in that light, the usage of broadband becomes far more revolutionary. We’ll be discussing this very topic at the July 17, 2012 Broadband Breakfast Club, “Bringing Broadband Adoption to the Nation’s Underserved Populations.”
The Broadband Adoption Trinity: Cost, Digital Literacy, Relevance
The FCC’s National Broadband Plan from March 2010 identified three areas that need to be addressed to getting all Americans online: the cost of broadband, basic digital literacy skills and the relevance of content available over broadband transmission. In the lead-up to the Broadband Breakfast Club event on July 17, we aim to analyze several of the key efforts and how they are tackling the problem of getting all Americans access to broadband… and the educational tools that Americans need to make it a part of their daily lives.
As a result of a the first nationwide broadband consumer survey, focusing on non-adopters, the agency wrote:
Cost. When prompted for the main reason they do not have broadband, 36% of non-adopters cite cost.
Digital Literacy. About 22% of non-adopters cite a digital literacy-related factor as their main barrier. This group includes those who are uncomfortable using computers and those who are “worried about all the bad things that can happen if [they] use the Internet.”
Relevance. Some 19% of non-adopters say they do not think digital content delivered over broadband is compelling enough to justify getting broadband service. Many do not view broadband as a means to access content they find important or necessary for activities they want to pursue. Others seem satisfied with offline alternatives. These non-adopters say, for instance, the Internet is a “waste of time.”
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has spoken about the dilemma associated with gaps in broadband usage. In a speech in San Diego on May 31, he noted the disparity between the 68 percent of Americans who are connected at home, versus South Korea and Singapore, where broadband adoption rates top 90 percent.
Equally significant are broadband divides in this country, with less than 50 percent of African Americans, Latinos, seniors and rural Americans having adopted broadband. Only 46 percent of low-income families have adopted broadband, versus 90 percent of wealthy families.
Being connected at home not only allows you to search for jobs, it can also help you develop basic skills – like how to prepare and upload your resume online. Learning slightly more advanced digital skills can be your ticket to a new job. Basic online certifications, for example, qualify people for new jobs in health care…. While some jobs require engineering or extensive computer software expertise, many only require basic digital skills – knowing how to use a computer, search, upload, or process a transaction.
Connect 2 Compete’s Unique Social Enterprise
Genachowski made these remarks at the launch of the first Connect 2 Compete pilot program. It offers 39,000 San Diego families (though who are eligible for free school lunches) high-speed internet services through the cable provider Cox Communications at only $9.95 a month. That’s coupled with high-powered computers sold and only $150 – plus free digital literacy and online content training.
The basic concept is to enlist funders — including foundations like the Instituto Carlos Slim, the Knight Foundation and the Wasserman Foundation — with computer and software companies like GoodPC and Microsoft, with training entities, and with high-speed internet providers. The far, the broadband providers who have committed to the program are predominantly from the cable industry.
In a nutshell, the goal is to address the cost of broadband, together with the digital literacy and relevance barriers first identified by the FCC.
Operationally, however, “this is a very backwards way” to start a social enterprise, Connect to Compete Chairman Ben Hecht said in a very frank discussion of the challenges and opportunities confronting C2C during a Washington conference in May. A normal non-profit or company gets itself going with the capacity to sell goods or services, and then seeks to tap into the marketplace, he said.
C2C, by contrast, has gotten “commitments at a market value of $4 billion, but with no way to deliver on them,” he said.
That’s not entirely true: through advertising, interfacing with educators and other partners – and of course, in collaboration with broadband providers – C2C is focusing on an online content launch in the fall, to be following by a major Ad Council campaign in 2013. More than 50 schools from six school districts will be participating in the fall San Diego pilot.
The FCC’s New Lifeline Pilot: Building Models for a Universal Broadband Fund
Equally interest is a new FCC Broadband Lifeline model in the works. Julie Veatch, the Acting Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, explains in a blog post yesterday:
We are delighted by the response last week to our groundbreaking Lifeline Broadband Adoption Pilot competition. Our Pilot takes aim at a problem that perpetuates poverty in the 21st Century: the low rate of broadband adoption by low-income Americans. Providers of all kinds submitted a total of 24 applications proposing innovative programs to help us better understand and tackle that issue.
Over the years, our Lifeline program has helped tens of millions of low-income consumers afford telephone service. But with broadband as essential today for jobs and opportunities as the phone was in the last century, the FCC in January included in its comprehensive reforms and modernization of Lifeline a Pilot program to explore ways to increase the low rate of broadband adoption among low-income Americans. Using $25 million in savings from Lifeline reforms, we will fund the selected Pilot projects for a year, while collecting valuable real world data about the experience to help the FCC determine how to use our Lifeline program to effectively increase broadband adoption.
At first glance, the applicants appear to have proposed well-structured, well-conceived pilots designed to help us gather the data we would need to design an effective Lifeline broadband support program. Many applicants are working with partners that can provide expertise on digital literacy training and sources for low-cost equipment. Also helpful: the applicants represent a geographically diverse mix of 25 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, enabling the pilots to test regional differences. You can view the applications in our electronic comment filing system.
None of this could make the Broadband Breakfast Club discussion on “Bringing Broadband Adoption to the Nation’s Underserved Populations”– next Tuesday, July 17 – more timely. Register here to see the panelists and join in the conversation.
Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club, the premier Washington forum advancing the conversation around broadband technology and internet policy. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter. He founded BroadbandCensus.com, and he brings experts and practicioners together to advance Better Broadband, Better Lives. He’s doing that now as Executive Director for Broadband Illinois, based in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield.