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Digital Inclusion

Digital Equity Includes Clear Messaging And Training, Experts Argue

Experts argued for clearer communications and training for Americans not used to connectivity.

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Hannah Hill of Boston Consulting Group

May 14, 2021 — Lost in the rhetoric of connecting Americans to crucial high-speed internet is what it takes to connect people who don’t have experience with the technology that many take for granted, experts on a webinar argued Wednesday.

Policy decisions often only emphasize the need to connect large swaths of underconnected areas, but seldom talk about the critical issue of communicating how to get connected, argued panelists at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

“If you are someone who lives in poverty in this country, you experience all kinds of friction,” said Bret Perkins, senior vice president of external and government affairs at Comcast. “And none of this is simple—those of us who live in this, we tend to oversimplify what it takes to sign up, what it takes to get on board, and we just have to understand that more and deal with the friction.”

The pandemic has increased attention on the digital divide, and the panelists called for clearer communications to reduce friction points to get the less-fortunate connected.

Connectivity issues must be addressed with consumer-focused lens

Hannah Hill, project leader at Boston Consulting Group, emphasized the importance of approaching problems with a consumer-focused lens, pointing out key factors in potential solutions such as effective communication.

“How can you explain the message clearly, not using technical jargon or terms, making it very clear about the terms in a way that is clear but not overwhelming?” she said. “And how can you share those messages through trusted channels—community organizations, educators, faith-based organizations, civic groups…How can you send trusted messages through trusted sources?”

Effective communication requires having a multilingual, multicultural view, said Daniel Noyes, co-CEO of Tech Goes Home. That includes “making sure you have multilingual phone lines that are properly staffed.”

Hill said companies should find ways to streamline the application process and ensure that support is always readily available.

“That comes back to the community organizations—in our research, more than 40 percent of respondents said that they wanted someone to walk them through the process step by step,” she said. “It was the most requested support that would make the program easier, and so being able to enable these organizations so that they can offer that support and assistance is key.”

Transparency around cost also key

Noyes also highlighted the importance of clear messaging with respect to cost. “If it costs $10 a month on your ad, it better cost $10 a month when the bill comes,” he said. “If the modem costs $15 a month and you say your service is $20 a month, but it’s actually $35 a month, you’re doing a disservice to the people you serve.”

Noyes noted that having internet access does not equate to being able to afford it.

“I had a conversation with someone no more than a month ago who said, ‘I have the internet, but the only way I have it for my kids is I take half the prescription medication I’m supposed to take, because that allows me to pay for the internet,’” he said. “So it’s not just closing out those who don’t have it, it’s also dealing with people who have it but can’t afford it.”

Heather Tsavaris, principal consultant at the Columbus Foundation, said she contemplated certain questions when addressing how to connect Columbus.

“As we thought about it and as we really went deep with people and did the qualitative empathy work, we refined that to move to, ‘How might we ensure people experiencing poverty can use technology in all the ways they want to and need to?’—really thinking about that value proposition and that relevancy.”

The pillars of an effective connectivity strategy

Lloyd Levine, a senior policy fellow at the U.C. Riverside School of Public Policy, pointed to three primary areas in which internet equity is important: economy, education and equal access to government and quasi-government services.

“Data shows that those who use computing devices to find jobs get jobs faster, they get promotions quicker, they keep their jobs longer, [and] if you use a mobile phone exclusively, you suffer harms at almost the same rate as people who have no access at all,” he said.

Unequal internet access leads to several such issues, Levine added, including barriers to doing well in school and applying to college as well as lack of access to telehealth and government services.

Levine said you can’t simply dust your hands after providing access to devices, but you must follow-through to ensure they know how to use them.

“You’ve got to set up an administrative side that says we’re about to give computers and internet service theoretically to a bunch of people who don’t have high tech skills,” Levine said. “[We need] devices that are purpose-built that are less likely to have somebody downloading malicious things that would then cause them problems later on, that are less likely to crash as you’re trying to do an essential project.”

In addition, Hill noted that companies need to be constantly researching and collecting data to make sure that they are continually assessing “who’s connected, who’s not and why, and how we can come together and create scalable products or scalable programs to address that.”

Part of this continual reassessment involves ensuring that problems are framed in a way that best serves consumers, Tsavaris said.

Perkins agreed, suggesting that providers broaden their approach and outlook.

“Yes, we want to have networks in front of everybody’s homes, yes, we want to get them all online, but there’s a tendency to stop short in thinking about, ‘What is it to be equitable here for people to live in the 21st century and to thrive?’ he said. “And for that, we’ve got to see it as [that] we want them connected [and] we want them to be able to use this with skill, and that requires a whole different mindset in terms of how we approach this.”

How government and regulators can get involved

In order to take the final steps in closing the digital divide, Levine said that he would like to see the FCC more specifically target access for low-income people.

“I’d like to see a collaborative approach where the government partners with the providers to ensure the provision of low-income people, whether it’s the way I mentioned earlier with a collective bargaining situation or a different provision,” he said. “Right now, it doesn’t work because there’s no real top-down leadership.”

Levine concluded that any legislation attempting to make the final push to close the digital divide will need to involve more than just internet availability.

“It’s not just about the broadband when the policymakers are passing these pieces of legislation…it’s a lot of work to connect the last people that are disconnected, whether it’s deploying in rural areas or it’s connecting those who are reluctant for whatever reason,” he said. “And if we just focus on the physical pipes, the infrastructure, we’re missing a huge component.”

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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Digital Inclusion

Kate Forscey: Biden’s Broadband Plan Begs the Question, If We Build it, Will Consumers Really Come?

One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access to all Americans is not just deployment but adoption.

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Author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, founder of KRF Strategies LLC

One good thing came out of the pandemic: Politicians across America have finally recognized that Internet access in 2022 is not a luxury, it is a necessity.  And Congress stepped up to the plate and passed the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Job Act, dedicating more money to closing the digital divide than ever before.

The recipe for achieving ubiquitous broadband requires three things: deployment, affordability, and adoption. For the past couple of decades, however, the U.S. has taken a “Field of Dreams” approach that ignores the last element. Our government approach’s operating assumption is “if you build the network, consumers will use it.” The data show that simply isn’t the case.

One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access to all Americans is not just deployment but adoption of the technology. Household income, region, race, and even the pandemic all play intertwined roles.

study by NTCA in just the past year showed that broadband adoption in areas where it is available dips from 99% in the age range from 18-29 to 75% in older demographics. Lack of adoption is also linked to level of education, from 71% in less than high school education to 98% in college graduates. The fact remains that getting Americans connected hinges on a lack of digital literacy and awareness, which runs the gamut from not understanding the technology itself to not realizing the program is there in the first place.

So when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released its rules for the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program on May 13th, there was a bipartisan breath of relief that the ball is rolling.

The Biden Administration is following the same tired playbook in focusing on buildout

Unfortunately, a closer analysis suggests the Biden Administration is following the same, tired playbook by placing the primary focus on buildout. The BEAD Program makes $42.45 billion available for broadband via grants to the States. States must prioritize buildout in unserved areas before moving on to underserved areas (or at least show that they have a plan to get access to an unserved area). The discussion of “non-deployment activities” for spurring adoption is short and relatively vague, almost like an afterthought.

Here’s one problem: States are not homogenous in terms of unserved areas. States like Kansas and West Virginia have significant (largely rural) unserved areas, while states like Maryland, Connecticut, or Florida have few.  So NTIA’s focus on broadband deployment means that States with fewer unserved areas are likely to focus their spending on additional buildout in areas that are already served (i.e., overbuilding), which is inefficient and likely unnecessary. After all, why spend scarce dollars to build out more in areas that already have broadband? Such an approach ignores the adoption prong of a successful broadband plan.

We need to adjust how we think of our priorities. Instead of implementing a field-of-dreams broadband plan, policymakers should ask themselves, if broadband is laid using federal infrastructure funding, but no one elects to adopt it, what have we accomplished? Probably nothing.

States don’t need to follow the NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment

The good news for States with fewer unserved areas is that they don’t need to follow NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment. The rules allow them to use federal funds on adoption projects  once they bring affordable broadband to all unserved areas. Education, outreach, and digital literacy are paramount in furthering Congress’s bipartisan goals. States should give more priority to educating consumers via digital equity programs (e.g., digital literacy education, broadband sign-up assistance, and remote learning facilities) once they have reached the unserved.

It’s time for States to formalize programs to Get Out The Adoption. States should hire people to knock on doors and leave pamphlets that let low-income Americans, minority and Tribal Americans, and veterans know there is a subsidy program available to them, how to apply, what the services are, and how to get access (and plus–that’s job creation!).

States should provide pop-ups like knock-off Genius bars in neighborhoods with historically low adoption rates where people can go to get help with devices or troubleshoot their newly acquired access. States should teach new users how to practice good cyber-hygiene; show them how telehealth can make their lives easier. States should create programs to educate new users about things a lot of those of us who work online every day take for granted as obvious.

Any funding program designed to bridge the digital divide needs to account for deployment, affordability, and adoption. And it is a fundamental economic principle—the more people see the value proposition and the less intimidated they are in using the technology, the more likely they are to adopt the technology. This cannot be an “if you build it, they will come.” We need to make the case for why we’re doing all of this in the first place. If it’s really worth $42.45 billion, then let’s make it so.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. 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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Digital Inclusion

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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