At a Broadband Summit at the FCC last week, national experts, academics and community program leaders discussed our country’s progress on where people are when it comes to taking advantage of broadband access. The major challenges to broadband adoption have been having access to broadband services, how and why to use that access once you have it, and cost. Presenters at the Summit discussed their research and how they have discovered subtle nuances to these challenges based on a variety of social and economic factors and how to strategically address them.
Dr. John Horrigan, Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies talked about the state of play in 2009, when the FCC’s Broadband Task Force provided an interim report to the FCC on the National Broadband Plan. Some of the key lessons learned in the past 4 years echo Dr. Gant’s findings that challenges are very specific to communities. While access, digital literacy and relevance still remain barriers to adoption, there are other reasons as well. Not all adopters are the same. In 2008-2009, the understanding was that non-adopters tended to be older populations who didn’t see the need for it. Since then, research has shown that most non-adopters, regardless of age, can become adopters as long as strategies to increase adoption cater to their needs. This shows that the non-adoption problem is much more complex and requires specific, case-by-case attention.
Dr. Jon Gant from the University of Illinois, School of Library and Information Sciences talked about the importance of public and private stakeholders to jointly create strategies that are specific to community needs. Broadband adoption solutions can’t be developed in a vacuum; success of adoption programs rely very much on what community needs are and then even drilling further down, the needs of individuals. He discussed how day-to-day priorities for potential users—such as ensuring daily childcare or rigid job schedules—can impact how a person utilizes broadband. As with any kind of learning and education processes, sustained practice and use is vital for increasing knowledge and development.
Community leaders understand this and are taking it into consideration as they work to bridge the digital divide in their communities. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has developed an online portal for veterans which is essentially a one-stop shop for information on veteran’s benefits. The need to access this information quickly and efficiently is what is driving broadband adoption in the veteran community in Massachusetts. The Hmong American Partnership is an organization that provides support and resources to the Hmong and other refugee communities in America. Employment and training is their biggest department and they are working to ensure that digital literacy is built into the programs they administer to their users. The College of Menominee Nation has deployed broadband throughout the reservation to provide access not only to students for higher education, but also to the community to create an interest in what they could do with broadband, which will then drive adoption and usage.
The broadband challenges of yesterday are still the challenges we face today. Cost is a huge deterrent to disconnected populations realizing the value of broadband to their everyday lives. We still face digital literacy obstacles. What we know now, though, is that these problems can be successfully met by knowing who you are working with and understanding what their needs are. Broadband adoption still has a way to go in this country but we are on a stronger path to ensuring we are connecting citizens to what they need to be connected to.