Last month, the nation celebrated the fifth anniversary of the National Broadband Plan, a heralded assignment by the Federal Communications Commission to develop a comprehensive blueprint for technology advancement, broadband deployment, and broadband adoption. At a recent day-long conference hosted by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, “The National Broadband Plan: Looking Back, Reaching Forward,” policy experts reviewed the Plan’s goals and accomplishments, and shared strategies for addressing those areas not yet achieved.
The bottom line: The National Broadband Plan has come a long way in five years, but not surprisingly, there’s still more work that needs to be done to make the U.S. broadband landscape even more competitive.
Overall, conference presenters and attendees, including myself, acknowledged that broadband infrastructure investments have increased since the Plan’s release, leading to strong competitive growth in network availability and expansion. The FCC has also worked to address the spectrum crunch through two completed auctions, the H Block and AWS-3; and more significant results are expected in the upcoming spectrum incentive auction. The nation is also seeing some of the “national purposes” outlined in the Plan come to fruition, particularly in education with the modernization of the E-rate program. Moreover, innovation is at an all-time high. Last year, John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO, projected that the “Internet of Everything,” from products to services to applications, would be a $19 trillion business opportunity.
In its five years, however, the Plan has more work to do in the area of broadband adoption. Yes, it is true that broadband adoption and use have been steadily increasing among the national population. When the Plan was first released in 2010, residential broadband adoption was at 65 percent for Americans, while approximately 35 percent – roughly 80 million adults – did not have home access. The latest data from the Pew Research Center revealed a 5 percentage point increase in home broadband adoption, or roughly 70 percent total penetration across the nation. Smartphone usage is also positively influencing adoption as more Americans, especially those of color, have become dependent on the mobile Internet.
Progress is not being experienced by all. Low-income, disabled, older and minority households still lag in their adoption of new technologies, particularly as both the perceived lack of relevance and high cost of broadband act as deterrents to their use. One year after the Plan was published, for example, Pew data confirmed that relevance and cost continued to be barriers to adoption; and even more recent data maintains these two points as critical deal breakers when it comes to getting more people online. Digital literacy and usability have also been reported as additional obstacles to online engagement as the innovation outpaces the skill sets of less tech savvy consumers.
Stalled broadband adoption rates for more vulnerable populations can also be attributed to the pace at which the Plan’s outlined national purposes have been progressing to meet community and individual needs. As long as government continues to operate within traditional service delivery frameworks that still require people to be “in line” versus “online,” we will probably not see an uptick in broadband adoption among those that heavily rely upon public services to survive.
Second, it’s important for government to understand that the task of converting millions of Americans into broadband subscribers requires substantial public-private partnerships. Comcast recently recognized a milestone in its Internet Essentials program that offers low-cost home broadband option for families with school-age children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. More than 450,000 households, or 1.8 million low-income individuals, have subscribed to the program as of February 2015.
At the Georgetown event, panelist Dr. John Horrigan, who has been tracking the program’s impact on broadband adoption, noted that more of these Internet Essentials families are leveraging their online connection to look for and apply to jobs, and better manage work/life challenges. If government is going to maximize broadband use among more vulnerable populations, it must cultivate and support strategic partnerships that help us to address the broadband adoption challenge, while moving citizens closer to the meaningful use of the medium for the Plan’s outlined national purposes, especially employment, health care and energy conservation.
Finally, with digital literacy framing the comfort level for online use, it’s critical that we debunk what we’re really talking about. At the Georgetown event, I suggested that we disentangle what we mean when we refer to “digital literacy.” So many definitions and intentions are circulating on this topic. There are targeted digital literacy programs that focus on adults, youth, seniors, and non-native English speakers; all of these groups need curricula that is designed to ensure they can contextualize the learning. More structured, technical training equips people with the credentials to use software programs and work more efficiently on their hardware. We should also be exploring digital literacy programs that address head-on the intuitive nature of broadband use. For example, Millennials and school-age youth tend to just figure things out when it comes to new technology, and that’s without a handbook. Sooner rather than later, we will all have to figure it out as well.
And there is undoubtedly another point around digital literacy that another panelist at the Georgetown event aptly phrased: we need to start replacing the concept of “digital literacy” with “digital motivation.” Digital literacy practitioners need to understand how technology will actually make it easier for citizens to better engage in our 21st century, information-rich economy – again, linking the training back to the national purposes described in the Plan.
Solving the broadband adoption crisis was probably not going to happen in five years, but at least we’re making some progress and beginning to ask a set of different questions. Getting government to start doing things differently as outlined in the Plan will take a little while longer, too. But what is so exciting about the celebration of the National Broadband Plan’s fifth anniversary is that we’ve actually made it around the track at least once in what is proving to be a marathon instead of sprint.
Let’s all hope that at its 10th anniversary, we’ll increase the grade on the Plan’s scorecard in those areas where people’s livelihood will be dependent on their ability to connect and engage.
- Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D., Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee is Vice President and Chief Research and Policy Officer for the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC). Prior to joining MMTC, she served as President and CEO to NAMIC, a professional association representing diversity in the cable industry and as Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.