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What Challenges Are We Still Facing in Seniors Getting Online: What Have We Learned and What Are the Remaining Obstacles?

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WASHINGTON Thursday May 17 2012 – Nearly two years after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) broadband deployment and adoption projects were funded and the National Broadband Plan was adopted, we are still dealing with 100 million Americans who do not receive broadband in the home.  While 65% of the population uses broadband, only 35% of Americans 65 and older are online.   Government officials and industry representatives met on Tuesday morning to discuss the need for seniors to embrace technological development, the adoption efforts geared toward senior citizens, and whether or not those efforts are working.

Debra Berlyn, President of Consumer Policy Solutions and founder of Project GOAL (Getting Older Adults Online) co-hosted this month’s Broadband Breakfast on “What Lessons Are We Learning in Getting older Adults Online,” and introduced the Keynote speaker Anthony Wilhelm, Director, Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), at the US Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA).

Wilhelm began by comparing the task at hand with getting seniors online to his experience in 2008 working on the DTV transition.  Wilhelm told the audience that he was struck by how valuable television was to many in this population demographic, often times it was their their primary source of information about the outside world.

His second takeaway was how important partnerships were for addressing the major challenges we face as a country. “Whether it is the transition to digital television or addressing the challenge of having 100 million Americans or 1 in 2 seniors without broadband in their homes, public-private partnerships are essential to attacking these problems effectively “ said Wilhelm. “Government, industry and non-profits need to all work together.”

The importance of internet to seniors is both social and economic. “Seniors need to be online to be productive and to be full participants in our society.” Wilhelm added, “It’s not so much what the internet can do for seniors but what seniors can do for the internet…seniors are the most experienced and some of the most creative members of our economy.”

The Director highlighted the efforts NTIA has been taking to address the issue of getting seniors online.  First he pointed to the Digital Nation Reports, highlighting that the latest reports show an 11 percentage point divide between seniors and the population in adopting broadband in the home.  The reports also show that when asked why they were not adopting, seniors had different reasons than the population as a whole.  For seniors, the biggest barrier to entry was relevance, and were much less likely to give price as a reason.

Wilhelm saw this as a positive sign, “relevance I think we can overcome.” Many BTOP grants can address this issue, “we all know once you are online this is a barrier that is easy to overcome by collaborations between industry government and the non-profit sector”.

Wilhelm also placed a lot of emphasis on the portal that NTIA launched last May, digitalliteracy.gov, an interagency collaboration including the FCC, which brings together lessons learned from initiatives across the country and hosts all the data in one place.  It allows practitioners solve problems in the field by analyzing what others have done, what has been working, and what curriculums are being implemented.

Wilhelm then provided some statistics regarding the 230 BTOP awards that were made in September 2010.  As of March 31st, these projects, funded through BTOP, which have reached their half-way point have: deployed or updated more than 56,000 miles of broadband infrastructure, connected more than 8000 community anchor institutions to high speed internet, entered into 400 interconnection agreements with 3rd party vendors to leverage their networks, have installed more than 30,000 work stations in public computing centers, and have provided more than 7 million hours in computer training to over 2 million users.

Anyone can go to the BTOP website and click on the Connecting Americas Communities Interactive Map to find a visual depiction of where these investments have been made and for which purposes.

“So what are we learning?” asked Wilhelm.  There are some key observations that have been drawn from the first two years of these projects’ existence.

“First,” said Wilhelm, “making broadband relevant to people’s everyday lives is important.” Connecting broadband to immediate needs such as finding a job, applying for benefits and connecting with family is the first step. “Demonstrating relevance for seniors, for example, often resides with educating them about connecting with friends and families via social networking platforms,” said Wilhelm.

The second observation the Director mentioned was the need for trusted intermediaries.  He highlighted the importance of working with groups on the ground, local non-profits that are trusted and familiar to the senior community. Examples of success in adoption through intermediaries come from residents that were originally non users and then became trainers for others.  Intergenerational programs that encourage students to train their own family members have also been among the most successful for reaching seniors.

The third observation is to meet people where they are.  “Location of training centers in communities is important. Choosing locations that minimize travel for seniors is critical given mobility challenges for these citizens” added Wilhelm.

Fourth, projects should address challenges of fear of technology, for which the human interface is important.  The director highlighted data that many first time senior internet users prefer one to one education over larger classes. Additionally programs should focus on the basics like using a mouse, logging on to email, and then further steps to address some of their fears about being scammed online.

Finally, “comprehensive services need to be taken into consideration,” stated the Director. Call centers and extra support was needed for users after their initial education.

Next, Josh Smith,  Staff Reporter National Journal and moderator for the morning introduced the panel of experts which included: Josh Gottheimer, Senior Counselor to the Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, John Horrigan, Vice President, Policy and Research, TechNet, Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel, Connected Nation, Elizabeth Crocker, Executive Director, foundation for rural Services and Thomas Kamber, Founding Executive Director, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS).

Gottheimer began the conversation by answering a series of questions on the FCC’s role in addressing adoption concerns specifically for seniors.

From a digital literacy perspective Gottheimer noted that 66 million Americans are digitally illiterate and helping people gain these fundamental skills is where the FCC has been attempting to place their focus.  He noted that 38% of public libraries have digital literacy classes and that by working with industry and non -profit partners, the FCC needs to focus on letting people know where they can get the education and training they need.

Gottheimer also noted that when it comes to relevancy, the social side of connecting to friends and family is very important for seniors. “Studies have shown that from a depression standpoint, there is a 20% decrease in depression rates among seniors that go online,” noted Gottheimer.

The benefits in terms of health are also enormous.  If seniors remote monitor, they make less trips to the doctor and reduce medical costs. Another statistic Gottheimer used, showed that “for congestive heart failure, when there is remote monitoring there is a 6% re-admission rate, versus the national average, 47% re-admission rate.”

When asked about how the needs of seniors mesh with the agency’s broader efforts to address adoption and deployment of broadband, Gottheimer referred to the USF reform efforts.  “Many lower income Americans are also elderly.”  To address costs the FCC has launched Connect to Compete, which targets cutting costs for lower income school lunch families.  In many of those pilots noted Gottheimer, ones that provide students with physical computers, it is the children that end up teaching the parents and grandparents.

Gottheimer believes that in an environment where technology is developing so fast, more of an emphasis needs to be placed on the basics, how to use a mouse, how to turn on a computer, then how to use different software.  “We have to give everyone the basic building blocks and ability to feel comfortable online first.”

A debate was raised when an audience member asked, why did the lifeline broadband adoption program not include any funding for digital literacy?

Gottheimer responded by stating that the funding was restricted by the statute, but there has been an additional proposed rule to allocate some of the USF savings towards digital literacy programs.  Some member of the audience and the panel seemed to disagree however noting that there is debate over what the statute said and whether it allows for the funding of digital literacy programs as well.

Koutsky believed “funding digital literacy is both ancillary and reasonable. It is obviously ancillary to a program where we are going to be funding broadband deployment that we would also fund the use and adoption of the technology that we are about to subsidize.”

Smith then brought the questions back to the panelists and asked the industry experts about what lessons they have learned in promoting adoption for seniors and what are the greatest obstacles?

Horrigan believes that two things are needed to get seniors online, one is urgency and the other is measurements.  If we look at mobile phones, there has been an explosion in connectivity while broadband adoption has stalled, however only 13% of seniors are using smart phones.  One of the largest growing sectors in the App market is in the Healthcare app department. “So you have seniors with a large demand for healthcare services lacking the devices that can get an app to them to measure their health and wellness,” added Horrigan. “Urgency is getting seniors online to take advantage of the growing technologies that are providing greater value for them; urgency increases as technology advances.”

Horrigan also stressed measurement.  “We need to measure the impact of various initiatives out there to get seniors online so that we understand the recipe for creating sustainable broadband adopters.”  Measurement is needed to make sure that the government’s scarce resources are properly targeted and allocated effectively.

Koutsky is looking forward to the next two years of the BTOP programs in order to figure out what worked and what did not.  Then efforts should be made to place resources towards the efforts that actually worked.

Koutsky’s work through Connected Nations has shown that personal connections are most important when getting seniors to connect online.  He noted that the FCC has only proposed to offer digital literacy through class rooms and in institutions that have not offered this training before.

Crocker, whose member organizations are rural telcos, has observed positive impact from their mobile computer lab and digital literacy programs.  The rural providers have a vested interest in getting more subscribers online.  The operators of the telcos are also all connected to their communities and often use very creative community based ideas to help get seniors online.  The biggest obstacle for these companies however is money, while they would like to connect every home to broadband they often times do not have the resources available.

Kamber, the Executive Director of OATS believes that adoption of technology with seniors is a structural problem that has existed since at least the 60s.  The way to address these structural issues is to focus first on the basic technologies like getting online and email.

There are also issues of resiliency and information access, added Kamber.  With seniors some major issues center around lack of opportunity to observe in action and understand the value proposition of new tools.  “Triability” is important, the concept where a user can test something out and come back to it at a later time and try again.  These broader issues concerning the characteristics of adopting technology also need to be addressed.

Kamber also asked how we are going to “take the groups that have built capacity and strategic capability and then make the transition from BTOP.” He wants to know how we are going to build a national training infrastructure from the information we have gained in order to best leverage government investment.

Berlyn then asked the panelists to talk about wireless.  All technology is moving to wireless.  A tablet, she mentioned is more mobile and perhaps more intuitive and might present less of a digital literacy challenge.

Corker agreed that wireless is important but reminded the audience that it is a tough sell for rural areas because there are not many cell towers.

Koutsky thought tablets were a good way to get around the subscriber model.  Connectivity is bundled into wireless.

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Digital Inclusion

Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Worsening the Digital Divide

There are government programs created to shrink the digital divide, but not many Americans know what’s out there.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Doug Lodder, president of TruConnect

From gas to groceries to rent, prices are rocketing faster than they have in decades. This leaves many American families without the means to pay for essentials, including cellphone and internet services. In fact, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy reports that poverty rates have been steadily climbing since March. We’re talking about millions of people at risk of being left behind in the gulf between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t.

We must not allow this digital divide to grow in the wake of the current economic climate. There is so much more at stake here than simply access to the internet or owning a smartphone.

What’s at stake if the digital divide worsens

Our reliance on connectivity has been growing steadily for years, and the pandemic only accelerated our dependence. Having a cell phone or internet access are no longer luxuries, they are vital necessities.

When a low-income American doesn’t have access to connectivity, they are put at an even greater disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to seek and apply for a job, they don’t have the option of convenient and cost-effective telehealth, opportunities for education shrink, and accessing social programs becomes more difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the social benefits that connectivity gives us humans—it’s natural to want to call our friends and families, and for many, necessary to share news or updates. The loss or absence of connectivity can easily create a snowball effect, compounding challenges for low-income Americans.

The stakes are certainly high. Thankfully, there are government programs created to shrink the digital divide. The challenge is that not many Americans know what’s out there.

What can be done to improve it

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created the federal Lifeline program to subsidize phones and bring them into every household. The program has since evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

More than 34 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized cell phones and internet access through the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 eligible people are taking advantage of the program because most qualified Americans don’t even know the program exists.

The situation is similar with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, another federal government program aimed at bringing connectivity to low-income Americans. Through ACP, qualifying households can get connected by answering a few simple questions and submitting eligibility documents.

Experts estimate that 48 million households—or nearly 40% of households in the country—qualify for the ACP. But, just like Lifeline, too few Americans are taking advantage of the program.

So, what can be done to increase the use of these programs and close the digital divide?

Our vision of true digital equity is where every American is connected through a diverse network of solutions. This means we can’t rely solely on fixed terrestrial. According to research from Pew, 27% of people earning less than $30,000 a year did not have home broadband and relied on smartphones for connectivity. Another benefit of mobile connectivity—more Americans have access to it. FCC data shows that 99.9% of Americans live in an LTE coverage area, whereas only 94% of the country has access to fixed terrestrial broadband where they live.

Additionally, we need more local communities to get behind these programs and proactively market them. We should see ads plastered across billboards and buses in the most impacted areas. Companies like ours, which provide services subsidized through Lifeline and ACP, market and promote the programs, but we’re limited in our reach. It’s imperative that local communities and their governments invest more resources to promote Lifeline, ACP and other connectivity programs.

While there’s no panacea for the problem at hand, it is imperative that we all do our part, especially as the economic climate threatens to grow the digital divide. The fate of millions of Americans is at stake.

Doug Lodder in President of TruConnect, a mobile provider that offers eligible consumers unlimited talk, text, and data, a free Android smartphone, free shipping, and access to over 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots; free international calling to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, China and Vietnam; plus an option to purchase tablets at $10.01. 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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Broadband's Impact

Senate Bill Subsidizing U.S. Semiconductor Production Clears House, Going to White House

Bill aims to strengthen American self-reliance in semiconductor chip production and international competition.

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Photo of Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, during Tuesday's press conference

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2022 – A $54 billion bill to subsidize U.S-made semiconductor chips passed the House Thursday on a 243-187, and moves to President Biden for his expected signature.

Dubbed the CHIPS Act for Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors Act for America Fund, the measure is expected to incentivize domestic semiconductor manufacturing and also provide grants for the design and deploying of wireless 5G networks. It also includes a $24 billion fund to create a 25 percent tax credit for new semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

Advocates of the measure say that it will also improve U.S. supply chain, grow U.S. domestic workforce, and enable the U.S. to compete internationally to combat national security emergencies.

The measure passed the Senate Wednesday on a 64-33 vote.

Congressional supporters tout benefits

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., voiced his support on the House floor, calling it “a win for our global competitiveness.”

The CHIPS Act of 2022 provides a five-year investment in public research and development, and establishes new technology hubs across the country.

Of the funds, $14 billion goes to upgrade national labs, and $9 billion goes to the National Institute of Standards and Technology research, of which $2 billion goes to support manufacturing partnerships, and with $200 million going to train the domestic workforce.

In a virtual press conference on Tuesday, Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett said that America’s semiconductor industry has lost ground to foreign competitors. “Today, only 12% of chips are manufactured in the United States, down from 37% in the 1990s.”

He said relying on cheaper products produced in China and overseas for so long, it has caught up with the United States.

Bennet suggested to move manufacturing labs to Colorado, where it can support it due to the plenty of jobs in aerospace and facility and infrastructure space.

“We don’t want the Chinese setting the standard for telecommunications. America needs to lead that. This bill puts us in the position to be a world leader,” said Bennet. “We are at a huge national security disadvantage if we don’t do this.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, joined his Rocky Mountain state colleague in support: “There is a real sense of urgency here to compete not only to re-establish the U.S. to make their own chips, but to compete internationally.”

He said that semiconductor chips are vital to almost every business and product, including phones, watches, refrigerators, cars, and laptops. “I’m not sure if I can think of a business that isn’t dependent on chips at this point.”\

“This is a space race,” he said. “We cannot afford to fall behind.”

Industry supporters say measure is necessary

The U.S. has lost ground to foreign competitors in scientific R&D and in supply chain industry during a recent semiconductor crisis, said France Córdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event on July 19. The U.S. only ranks sixth best among other prominent countries in the world for research and development, she said.

“The CHIPS Act of 2022 and FABS Act are critical investments to even the global playing field for U.S. companies, and strategically important for our economic and national national security,” said Ganesh Moorthy, president and CEO of Microchip Technology Inc.

Bide expected to sign measure

With the Biden’s Administration’s focus to tackle the semiconductor shortage and supply chain crisis through the Executive Order made in February, the Biden administration has been bullish on the passage of the CHIPS Act, in a Wednesday statement:

“It will accelerate the manufacturing of semiconductors in America, lowering prices on everything from cars to dishwashers.  It also will create jobs – good-paying jobs right here in the United States.  It will mean more resilient American supply chains, so we are never so reliant on foreign countries for the critical technologies that we need for American consumers and national security,” said Biden.

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Health

Providers Call for More FCC Telehealth Funding as Demand Grows

‘I think obtaining funding from the Universal Service Fund would go a long way.’

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2022 – Health care providers in parts of America say they are struggling to deliver telehealth due to a lack of broadband connectivity in underserved communities, and recommended there be more funding from the Federal Communications Commission.

While the FCC has a $200-million COVID-19 Telehealth program, which emerged from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, some providers say more money is needed as demand for telehealth services increases.

“The need for broadband connectivity in underserved communities exceeds current availability,” said Jennifer Stoll from the Oregon Community Health Information Network.

The OCHIN was one of the largest recipients of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot program in 2009. Stoll advocated for the need for more funding with the non-profit SHLB Coalition during the event last week. Panelists didn’t specify how much more funding is needed.

Stoll noted that moving forward, states need sustainable funding in this sector. “I am hoping Congress will be mindful of telehealth,” said Stoll.

“The need for telehealth and other virtual modalities will continue to grow in rural and underserved communities,” she added.

Brian Scarpelli, senior global policy counsel at ACT, the App Association, echoed the call for FCC funding from the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes basic telecommunications services to rural areas and low-income Americans. “I think obtaining funding from the Universal Service Fund would go a long way.”

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