Divergence: Which Path Will We Choose on the Road to Universal Broadband Adoption? Part I

by Latoya Livingston on February 24, 2013

Dark Computer - Jimmy HogoboomAs we delve into President Obama’s second term, the question persists: How do we get closer to universal broadband adoption?  Over the years, the Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission have turned to government programs and public/private partnerships, such as the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which boasts $40 billion in planned investments, and Connect to Compete, to raise awareness of the need for broadband among those who have yet to adopt.  However, according to BTOP’s most recent analysis, 3.5 percent and .2 percent of the population, respectively, have yet to receive access to wired and wireless broadband providers.  How do we, as people working within the communications industry, bridge that gap and bring those remaining unserved and underserved Americans into the fold?

Achieving universal broadband adoption is imminently imperative to how people will be able to survive in the coming years.  A recent report by Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, found that in today’s job market, a college degree has the same hiring effect as a high school diploma.  This means that those applying for jobs that once needed merely a high school diploma, such as a file clerk or receptionist, need not apply to many open positions unless they have a college degree.  Economists have termed this phenomenon “degree inflation,” and the price of not having access to broadband is having a direct influence on its affect on the unconnected.   Since technology and broadband are so interconnected with education, there will likely be a large group of people who will be un-hirable due directly to the fact that they lack access to broadband.   As Michael Steffan of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s office described it during MMTC’s recent Broadband and Social Justice Summit, “The adoption gap is an employment, education, and healthcare opportunity gap for individuals who aren’t connected.  And it is a lost opportunity for the country to do the transformative things that we’ll be able to do.”

Digital Foresight

The vision of universal broadband adoption in the 21st century should be focused on a multifaceted approach to increasing deployment, education, and access a point that many within the communications industry have found key.  For example, during the “21st Century Vision for Universal Broadband Adoption” panel the BBSJ Summit, Aspen Institute Fellow and Policy Strategist Blair Levin noted that “we are still at the stage where we need to have a lot more experimentation, so we shouldn’t focus on only one way to solve the problem.”  It will take a cocktail of measures taken together and specifically streamlined to address all the reasons why universal broadband adoption has been elusive.

Levin, who was one of the key architects of the National Broadband Plan, expressed apprehension about the current path to ensuring universal broadband.  “The biggest concern is our analysis of the plan,” he said.  “It was on the basis of cost product; however, it is better to focus a plan on cost avoidance.”

Levin also pointed out that broadband is a “ground game,” not an “air game” we need programs that engage people.   According to Levin, infrastructure is easy and expensive, while programs to promote adoption are hard and cheap.  In practical terms, this equates to focusing on relevancy, digital knowledge, social adoption, and also finding intimate alternatives; for example, one should not overlook the power of a co-worker or family member showing people the digital ropes.  Although we’ve seen significant progress in achieving universal access, as Dr. John Horrigan of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies pointed out, “Saying ‘build it and they will come’ is like hoping that supply will create its own demand.  When solving the problem of universal broadband adoption, we need to be people to people focused.”

Personalization Counts

In an effort to hone in on the needs of the people, the FCC announced last April that it would launch a competition to identify the best ways to increase broadband adoption among low-income Americans.  In the ten months that have passed, the Commission has committed to ensuring that these competitions can produce new insights on addressing the access and adoption gap.  According to Horrigan, the $21 million pilot programs, which are set to begin this month, will be held in 21 states and are “exciting because they are very rigorously designed by economists and outside organizations to find out what type of interventions work.”  Horrigan noted that it will take concerted efforts aimed at attacking cost, the main barrier to broadband adoption, digital literacy, and relevance, to fix the adoption problem.  He added, however, that addressing cost alone is simply not enough.  Levin seconded this notion, cautioning against policy positions that require us to put all of our eggs in one basket.

Moving forward, Horrigan noted that there are tremendous opportunities to leverage what we learn from BTOP and similar pilot programs to improve access/adoption in President Obama’s second term.  While African Americans and Hispanics lead in wireless consumption, they are not leaders in app development and infrastructure buildout.  Getting minorities more involved in app development would help with adoption and spur economic opportunities.  However, availability is a prerequisite to adoption, and that seems to be a huge priority to the Commission, which at this moment is beginning a process to develop a way to report if an area is unserved or underserved.  In fact, National Telecommunications and Information Association Deputy Administrator Anna Gomez has announced that NTIA and the FCC will soon update the National Broadband Map, a step that will make identifying those most in need of broadband much easier.

NEXT TIME: We will discuss rural communities and the ways that we can effectively and efficiently provide service to these areas.

    • Latoya LivingstonLatoya Livingston is a Washington-D.C.-based attorney with years of legal experience working in the private and public sector. Currently, Attorney Livingston serves as a Senior Attorney and the Earle K. Moore Fellow at MMTC.


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