All Hands on Deck: Closing the Gap Between Broadband Adoption and Availability Requires Collective Effort

by Simon Kwak on February 7, 2013

BBSJ Summit Robert Quinn Bret Perkins Fernando LaguardaIn the United States, the total dollar figure invested to deploy broadband is telling of its increasing importance to the economy:  Telecom and cable TV companies invested over $97.7 billion between 2004 and 2010.  Last year, AT&T announced plans to invest an additional $14 billion to upgrade existing broadband networks and to support future growth by 2014.  Verizon spent more than $2 billion to position itself in the cloud computing market, which it estimates will be worth $150 billion by the year 2020.  Collectively, these investments have led to the deployment of fixed or mobile broadband (at a benchmark download speed of 4 Mbps and upload speed at 1 Mbps) to 98 percent of Americans.

While private industry has made impressive strides in developing the infrastructure necessary to deliver broadband to consumers, this does not invariably mean that American consumers are actually adopting the technology.

Broadband Adoption Key to Maximizing Its Impact 

According to reports issued by the FCC and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) last year, the adoption rate in the United States stands between 62 and 68 percent.  The lack of adoption by more than 30 percent of U.S. population means that millions of Americans are failing to receive critical opportunities to participate in the 21st century global economy provided by broadband Internet.

For example, the FCC, in its Eighth Broadband Progress Report to Congress, emphasized that “broadband is essential to innovation, jobs, and global competiveness.”  Furthermore, Brahima Sanou, director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, noted that “[b]roadband has become a key priority of the 21st Century” and that its “transformative power as an enabler for economic and social growth makes it an essential tool for empowering people.…”

The disparity between broadband availability and adoption also indicates the need for policy stakeholders to take concrete steps to ensure that all Americans can fully realize the beneficial impact of broadband.

Leaders in the public sector and private industry appear to be cognizant of the gap between broadband availability and adoption and are responding with substantive ideas to close it.

Closing the Gap:  A Public and Private Sector Endeavor

As essential services, such as healthcare and education, are now being delivered through broadband technologies and can lead to a better quality of life, it is critical that government and private industry make a focused effort to promote and encourage adoption of broadband services.  For instance, Time Warner Cable’s Vice President of External Affairs and Policy Counselor Fernando Laguarda recently offered a basic three-step approach to closing the broadband adoption and availability gap during a panel discussion titled “Broadband: The Backbone of The New Economy” at MMTC’s 2013 Broadband and Social Justice Summit.

First, both government and private industry need to understand the barriers to broadband adoption.  On the same panel, Comcast’s Vice President of External and Government Affairs Brett Perkins addressed what government can do to be an enabler of opportunities.  “Government needs to understand the linkage of what technology does and the disruptions it will cause,” he said.  He added that “a parallel conversation focusing on maximizing technology and also making sure how to leverage it” must also take place.

Second, once the barriers and challenges to adoption have been identified, the attention should shift toward lowering them.  Laguarda alluded to the FCC’s Connect-to-Compete initiative, which involves public and private partnerships aimed at closing the digital divide.  The program offers broadband Internet access and computer equipment at low costs, as well as free, online digital literacy training.

Third, Laguarda contended that a policy-setting agenda on telecom and broadband infrastructure should encompass a broader ecosystem to foster a deeper understanding of how broadband can be best utilized to serve as the foundation for an economy of the future.

Several other panelists also provided their input on the issue.  For example, Verizon’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Federal Government Relations Craig Silliman said that basic regulatory parameters should start with consumer protection, not technology based principles.  Robert W. Quinn Jr., an executive at AT&T, identified cumbersome procedures employed by municipalities as an area where local governments can reevaluate their policies of facilitating the adoption of broadband.  Furthermore, Kathleen O’Brien Ham of T-Mobile also added that competition is a key component of a healthy, consumer-oriented marketplace.

Continued Efforts, Continued Growth

As the discussions that took place at MMTC’s panel underscore, the issue of broadband’s function in today’s digital economy is intertwined with the issue of broadband adoption.  While efforts to increase broadband deployment and availability are vital to promoting increased broadband usage, initiatives that teach digital literacy and encourage greater adoption by providing affordable options for Americans to get online are equally critical to closing the digital divide.  These efforts, in tandem, will continue to require the dedication of a wide cross section of our communications industry to realize greater success and truly ensure that all Americans receive 21st century digital citizenship.

  • Simon Kwak is a legal intern at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. He earned his B.A. from University of California, San Diego and will earn his J.D. from Pepperdine University School of Law in May 2013.

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