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Reflections on ‘Sustainable Adoption’ for Round 2 of Broadband Stimulus

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.

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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 commentary@broadbandcensus.com. 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.

Expert Opinion

Sen. Michael Bennet: Broadband Infrastructure Legislation Follows Colorado Model

Senate-passed legislation for broadband investment inspired by Colorado’s experience, says senator.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator from Colorado

Washington may soon make the biggest broadband investment in U.S. history, and the first draft was written in Colorado.

Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes a historic $65 billion for broadband. This section draws directly from the BRIDGE Act, the bill I wrote with Coloradans to reflect our state’s struggles and successes against the digital divide.

Long before the pandemic, broadband was a consistent source of frustration for people across our state. Parents on the Front Range, farmers on the Eastern Plains, and nurses on the Western Slope all told me the same thing: broadband was too slow or expensive to be of any practical use.

Too often, Washington’s answer was to shower the biggest telecom companies with billions in subsidies to build networks, usually in rural areas, that were outdated almost as soon as they were finished. At the same time, Washington had no good answer for working families, many in cities, who couldn’t afford existing broadband options.

As usual, Colorado didn’t wait on Washington to act. Cities created their own municipal networks, like Longmont’s NextLight, which PC Magazine named one of the fastest broadband providers in America. Electric coops like the Delta-Montrose and Yampa Valley Electric Associations deployed fiber-optic networks in rural communities at world-class speeds and prices. Through it all, the Colorado government demonstrated that it could get money out the door for broadband faster and more effectively than Washington.

With these lessons in mind, I wrote the BRIDGE Act with Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio and Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King from Maine. Our bill became the model for the broadband provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now on the cusp of becoming law.

Based on the BRIDGE Act, the infrastructure bill gives the lion’s share of the broadband funding to states, not Washington. This is a sea change in policy, because it puts states and local leaders — not federal bureaucrats — in the driver’s seat. After all, they have the best understanding of needs on the ground and the greatest incentive to spend limited funds wisely.

Second, the bill more than quadruples the minimum speeds for new broadband networks, while prioritizing even faster networks. For a typical family, this means kids could download homework (or stream Netflix) even as parents work remotely — all without their connection slowing to a crawl.

Third, the bill includes $2 billion for broadband on tribal lands, including the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute here in Colorado. According to the FCC, one in three homes on tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband — a significantly higher rate than the rest of the country. Closing this gap is an economic and moral imperative.

Finally, the infrastructure bill prioritizes affordability by requiring new broadband networks to provide at least one low-cost option. Inexplicably, Washington has never insisted on this before. And it can’t come soon enough.

All of these ideas came directly from the BRIDGE Act and what I’ve learned from Colorado. Now we have to pass them into law.

If we do, it would represent the biggest broadband investment in our history, but also one of the most transformative investments in our future. It will mean every worker in our mountain communities can connect remotely for their jobs. It will mean every farmer and rancher can deploy the latest technologies for precision agriculture. It will mean every family can connect with their doctors online, instead of traveling hours to the local clinic. And it will mean no student will be left without broadband, which today is no different than leaving them without textbooks.

We are on the verge of connecting every American to affordable, high-speed broadband. And if we succeed, we can take satisfaction in knowing that Colorado led the way.

Michael Bennet is U.S. Senator from Colorado. This piece was originally published in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Shrihari Pandit: States Can Enable Broadband Infrastructure Through Open Access Conduits

By creating open infrastructure systems, states can reduce the barriers to entry and foster increased broadband competition.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications

Now that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate, we see key provisions included for broadband in America. In fact, a whopping $65B will go toward broadband funding — provided it passes the House this month. But, will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?

The short answer is: not necessarily. For years the federal government has provided subsidies to incumbent ISPs hoping they will solve key issues with broadband in America and still access to the internet continues to be a challenge. What we need is a radical broadband overhaul where we can level the playing field for smaller ISPs to compete in the marketplace and fill the gaps incumbent ISPs have neglected for years.

As the broadband infrastructure funding provisions emerge, it appears that states will have a major role in determining how to allocate these resources. And, they must make careful considerations to help connect the unconnected and meet the needs of their residents. As access to a robust digital communications network is so critical now – in an ongoing pandemic era – states also have to look ahead and ensure they are creating sustainable and long-term infrastructure in the public interest.

Creating open-access conduit systems

State governments should focus on enabling key infrastructure, namely conduits, rights of way and utility poles – as these are the biggest hurdles for ISPs looking to extend fiber. Sometimes referred to among pros as “layer zero”, the telecom market can be transformed with open-access conduit systems running across the country and extended locally. A conduit highway would be akin to the interstate in which fiber could be easily run between cities and towns across multiple states.

An open-access conduit system can help create a more approachable marketplace for new ISPs to enter and help to fill coverage gaps left un-served by incumbent ISPs. Easier and cheaper access to neutral utility poles would help to reduce the cost of broadband access and allow providers to easily pull their fiber optic infrastructure to homes, businesses, and wireless towers, especially vital for longer-distances in rural areas. In NYC, for example, there is a robust competitive marketplace enabled by a shared conduit system managed by Empire City Subway.

Although currently limited to boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, this carrier-neutral system allows multiple ISPs to run cables up and down streets with ease and provides a pathway to extend fiber access to additional NYC neighborhoods. Across the country, open-access models are proliferating, including Ammon, Idaho, as summarized in a recent report by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Leveling the ISP marketplace

By creating open infrastructure systems, more providers can enter the marketplace and create increased competition as the barriers to entry are reduced. Previously, incumbent ISPs have received billions of dollars to close the digital divide, – the divide, as well as their market power, persist.

By creating infrastructure that brings additional private ISPs into the marketplace, states can give residents and businesses  more choices to meet their internet needs which is in the best interest of everyone. More competition also means that incumbent ISPs need to step up their game and offer the services they boast about – or they risk losing market share to private competition. In other words, a long-term, sustainable solution.

Embracing the public infrastructure/private service model

When considering a new infrastructure project, oftentimes, the burden of proof lies with the state. However, with the public infrastructure/private service model, the risk is shared between the state and the ISP. This model enables cities and counties to finance and maintain infrastructure while also managing rights-of-way. And, private or incumbent ISPs can ensure broadband access including cable, fiber optic, or wireless. This is a scalable option for communities that are unaware of how to operate communications networks but want to own and control core communications assets.

States have a major undertaking ahead as they consider how to utilize their infrastructure funding to boost public works projects. As broadband infrastructure development has been so crucial in the last year, creating an improved marketplace for ISPs through open-access infrastructure should be their priority in their long-term public interest.  And with a public infrastructure/private service model, the risk will be shared with providers.

Shrihari Pandit is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-area fiber provider Stealth Communications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Internet Service Providers Benefit From a Shared Fiber Network Infrastructure

Both emerging and established internet service providers will stand to gain from SiFi Networks’ shared broadband model.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks

“Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.” These were words spoken by President Joe Biden in July 2021, minutes before he signed an executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy. This is poignantly relevant to telecom companies in the United States. In the U.S., an industry that limits consumer choice makes it hard for small Internet Service Providers to break through.

As the CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks, I can attest that both emerging and established ISPs stand to gain from a shared broadband model.

Indeed, without healthy competition in the economy, big players could potentially change and charge whatever they want for services that don’t suit the needs of the consumer. For many Americans, this means limited options in terms of providers and services. So, how have we got here?

Monopolies: A competitive advantage?

ISPs have always seen it as a competitive advantage to own and operate their own broadband infrastructure. This makes it difficult for smaller companies to break through, stifling competition and maximizing profits for established corporations. However, heavy investments in network infrastructure can be a double-edged sword — companies have so far disregarded the costs of tying themselves up in long-term infrastructure projects and are now struggling to divest and adapt to a rapidly changing market.

This is why many U.S. towns are still served by slow, outdated cable and the national fiber coverage sits at a meager 32 per cent. But, in an age where the internet is critical for education, healthcare and business growth, consumer demands for high-speed connectivity make fiber optic the only viable option.

As it stands, only the big telecoms players can feasibly upgrade their cable networks. However, this is costly, disruptive, and takes years to complete, meaning ISPs cannot expect a quick return on investment.

A new broadband ecosystem is needed to give ISPs of all sizes the chance to respond to consumer demands without necessarily overhauling their existing network infrastructure, a costly and time-consuming option. It is here that embracing open access broadband models may prove effective and helpful.

Don’t miss Broadband Breakfast’s annual Digital Infrastructure Investment mini-conference, which is sponsored by entities including SiFi Networks. The event unites infrastructure investment fund managers, institutional investors, private equity and venture capitalists with senior broadband leaders and brings clarity to the next business model for advanced digital infrastructure. 

Fostering competition with open access

Open access infrastructure essentially means sharing a fiber optic network. Many companies are reluctant to use this model because they believe that increased competition could negatively affect their profits. In reality, there are many benefits to be gained from using a shared network infrastructure. The first is that open access broadband gives ISPs access to a larger pool of potential customers. Giving consumers more choice over their broadband packages and providers will attract a more diverse demographic of customers and thus, promote overall revenue.

At a time when customer demand dictates the need to upgrade services and improve connectivity speed and quality, open access can also help ISPs of all sizes minimize costs. Construction and maintenance of a network is carried out by the infrastructure developer, freeing up budget for ISPs, who can redirect it into areas of the business that need extra attention, such as boosting customer relationships. Larger ISPs, who spend millions of dollars per year maintaining their network infrastructure, could pull their savings into improving and diversifying their product offerings.

Sharing an infrastructure will mean more ISPs can operate in the market, fostering competition, lowering prices and offering better consumer choice. Citizens who previously felt cut-off from basic educational and healthcare services because they couldn’t afford their only broadband option, should then be able to pursue more affordable packages. This will naturally encourage more residents and businesses to subscribe, creating a larger pool of potential customers and ultimately improving economic growth and social mobility.

Open access is attractive to larger ISPs too. As it stands, the telecoms sector ranks at the bottom of 46 industries for customer satisfaction according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. Therefore, if they didn’t need to budget for the operation and maintenance of their fiber, and to upgrade outdated copper-based networks that no longer satisfy consumers’ demands, more money could be invested in bettering customer communication and service. If customers are happy with their ISP, and a good brand reputation can be established, this will be a huge competitive advantage.

“Fair competition is what made America the wealthiest, most innovative nation in history,” said Biden during his White House press conference. If smaller ISPs had a fair chance to enter the market, the well-established big players could stay competitive by improving their customer experience and tailoring their services to satisfy the needs of their customers. Ownership of the network infrastructure is no longer the only or even the best way to compete in the high-speed internet space. An open-access model will diversify the market and allow a variety of ISPs to thrive.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson is CEO of SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and owns FiberCity networks. Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties in cities make use of FiberCity networks, which also offer connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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