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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.

As Deputy Editor, Chris Naoum is curating expert opinions, and writing and editing articles on Broadband Breakfast issue areas. Chris served as Policy Counsel for Future of Music Coalition, Legal Research Fellow for the Benton Foundation and law clerk for a media company, and previously worked as a legal clerk in the office of Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. He received his B.A. from Emory University and his J.D. and M.A. in Television Radio and Film Policy from Syracuse University.

Broadband's Impact

USC, CETF Collaborate on Research for Broadband Affordability

Advisory panel includes leaders in broadband and a chief economist at the FCC.

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Hernan Galperin of USC's Annenberg School

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2021 – Researchers from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the California Emerging Technology Fund is partnering to recommend strategies for bringing affordable broadband to all Americans.

In a press release on Tuesday, the university’s school of communications and journalism and the CETF will be guided by an expert advisory panel, “whose members include highly respected leaders in government, academia, foundations and non-profit and consumer-focused organizations.”

Members of the advisory panel include a chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, digital inclusion experts, broadband advisors to governors, professors and deans, and other public interest organizations.

“With the federal government and states committing billions to broadband in the near term, there is a unique window of opportunity to connect millions of low-income Americans to the infrastructure they need to thrive in the 21st century,” Hernan Galperin, a professor at the school, said in the release.

“However, we need to make sure public funds are used effectively, and that subsidies are distributed in an equitable and sustainable manner,” he added. “This research program will contribute to achieve these goals by providing evidence-based recommendations about the most cost-effective ways to make these historic investments in broadband work for all.”

The CETF and USC have collaborated before on surveys about broadband adoption. In a series of said surveys recently, the organizations found disparities along income levels, as lower-income families reported lower levels of technology adoption, despite improvement over the course of the pandemic.

The surveys also showed that access to connected devices was growing, but racial minorities are still disproportionately impacted by the digital divide.

The collaboration comes before the House is expected to vote on a massive infrastructure package that includes $65 billion for broadband. Observers and experts have noted the package’s vision for flexibility, but some are concerned about the details of how that money will be spent going forward.

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Broadband's Impact

Technology Policy Institute Introduces Data Index to Help Identify Connectivity-Deprived Areas

The Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple datasets to try to get a better understanding of well- and under-connected areas in the U.S.

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Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute

WASHINGTON, September 16, 2021 – The Technology Policy Institute introduced Thursday a broadband data index that it said could help policymakers study areas across the country with inadequate connectivity.

The TPI said the Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple broadband datasets to compare overall connectivity “objectively and consistently across any geographic areas.” It said it will be adding it soon into its TPI Broadband Map.

The BCI uses a “machine learning principal components analysis” to take into account the share of households that can access fixed speeds the federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload and 100/25 – which is calculated based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data with the American Community Survey – while also using download speed data from Ookla, Microsoft data for share of households with 25/3, and the share of households with a broadband subscription, which comes from the American Community Survey.

The BCI has a range of zero to 10, where zero is the worst connected and 10 is the best. It found that Falls Church, Virginia was the county with the highest score with the following characteristic: 99 percent of households have access to at least 100/25, 100 percent of households connect to Microsoft services at 25/3, the average fixed download speed is 243 Mbps in Ookla in the second quarter of this year, and 94 percent of households have a fixed internet connection.

Meanwhile, the worst-connected county is Echols County in Georgia. None of the population has access to a fixed connection of 25/3, which doesn’t include satellite connectivity, three percent connect to Microsoft’s servers at 25/3, the average download speed is 7 Mbps, and only 47 percent of households have an internet connection. It notes that service providers won $3.6 million out of the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide service in this county.

“Policymakers could use this index to identify areas that require a closer look. Perhaps any county below, say, the fifth percentile, for example, would be places to spend effort trying to understand,” the TPI said.

“We don’t claim that this index is the perfect indicator of connectivity, or even the best one we can create,” TPI added. “In some cases, it might magnify errors, particularly if multiple datasets include errors in the same area.

“We’re still fine-tuning it to reduce error to the extent possible and ensure the index truly captures useful information. Still, this preliminary exercise shows that it is possible to obtain new information on connectivity with existing datasets rather than relying only on future, extremely expensive data.”

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Broadband's Impact

New Report Recommends Broadening Universal Service Fund to Include Broadband Revenues

A Mattey Consulting report finds broadband revenues can help sustain the fund used to connect rural and low-income Americans.

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Carol Mattey of Mattey Consulting LLC

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2021— Former deputy chief of the Federal Communications Commission Carol Mattey released a study on Tuesday recommending the agency reform the Universal Service Fund to incorporate a broad range of revenue sources, including from broadband.

According to the report by Mattey’s consulting firm Mattey Consulting LLC, revenues from “broadband internet access services that are increasingly used by Americans today should contribute to the USF programs that support the expansion of such services to all,” it said. “This will better reflect the value of broadband internet access service in today’s marketplace for both consumers and businesses.”

Mattey notes that sources of funding for the USF, which are primarily from voice revenues and supports expanding broadband to low-income Americans and remote regions, has been shrinking, thus putting the fund in jeopardy. The contribution percent reached a historic high at 33.4 percent in the second quarter this year, and decreased slightly after that, though Mattey suggested it could soar as high as 40 percent in the coming years.

“This situation is unsustainable and jeopardizes the universal broadband connectivity mission for our nation without immediate FCC reform,” Mattey states in her report, “To ensure the enduring value of the USF program and America’s connectivity goals, we must have a smart and substantive conversation about the program’s future.”

According to Mattey’s data, the assessed sources (primarily voice) of income will only continue to shrink over the coming years, while unassessed sources will continue to grow. Mattey’s report was conducted in conjunction with INCOMPAS, NTCA: The Rural Broadband Association, and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“It is time for the FCC to take action, and to move away from the worst option of all – the status quo – that is jeopardizing the USF which is critical to connecting our nation,” the report said.

John Windhausen, executive director of SHLB, echoed the sentiments expressed by Mattey in her report, “We simply must put the USF funding mechanism on a more stable and sustainable path,” he said, “[in order to] strengthen our national commitment to broadband equity for all.”

Mattey report uniform with current recommendations

Mattey’s research is generally in line with proponents of change to the USF. Some have recommended that the fund draw from general broadband revenues, while others have said general taxation would provide a longer lasting solution. Even FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested that Big Tech be forced to contribute to the system it benefits from, which the acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said is an “intriguing” idea.

The FCC instituted the USF in 1997 as a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The fund was designed to encourage the development of telecom infrastructure across the U.S.—dispensing billions of dollars every year to advance the goal of universal connectivity. It does so through four programs: the Connect America Fund, Lifeline, the rural health care program, and E-Rate.

These constituent programs address specific areas related for broadband. For example, the E-Rate program is primarily concerned with ensuring that schools and libraries are sufficiently equipped with internet and technology assistance to serve their students and communities. All of these programs derive their funding from the USF.

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