As Washington Wakes Up to Broadband, Adoption and Availability Must Be Addressed

To paraphrase Mark Twain, for the past decade, there has been a lot of talk in Washington about broadband, but no one has done much about it. That changes today, as the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission will explain how the Obama administration intends to use the provisions of the stimulus bill to ensure that broadband technologies are available to, and affordable for, every American. [IMGCAP(1)]

Although urban and suburban Americans generally have a choice of broadband providers, millions of exurban and rural households — possibly as many as 8 percent of American households — don’t have access to affordable broadband. Equally troubling, millions of American households have broadband networks passing right in front of their doorsteps, but for reasons not entirely clear, have decided not to subscribe.

Though private industry will always be the primary investor in and builder of our nation’s broadband infrastructure, there are important roles that government must play if every American is to realize the benefits of broadband.

The stimulus bill reflects a recognition that you can’t cure a condition until you have diagnosed it. Appropriately, the administration and Congress provide funding for “mapping— broadband networks across the United States. Within two years, Americans will have a clear sense of where (and whether) the market is effectively delivering broadband, but also where additional government assistance to ensure broadband availability will be necessary. Some states have undertaken mapping efforts on their own, but currently there are no commonly accepted metrics for meaningful comparison of broadband availability, adoption speeds or pricing. Thus, there is no reliable way of measuring where our nation (or any particular state) stands with regard to broadband: we simply don’t have a meaningful or reliable grading system.

Virtually every analyst agrees that rural Americans are the least likely to have available access to broadband. Geography and economics conspire against investment in broadband in America. It is simply not easy to recoup broadband investment in states where cattle outnumber people and homes are dispersed widely. Fiber optic and other broadband technologies are expensive to deploy in these areas, and broadband wireless technologies are just now becoming fully viable for deployment.

Just as this nation brought electricity, telephones and Internet service to rural America, we must make broadband networks ubiquitously available, as well. Appropriately, the lion’s share of this funding will address broadband in unserved areas through programs at the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture. In addition, funding will be available for improving broadband networks at libraries, community colleges, community technology centers and other locations where low-income families and the working poor are most likely to go for broadband access. According to Morgan Stanley, the national residential broadband penetration rate is currently about 56 percent of all households. For those 40 million plus households who don’t have broadband at home, and for those tens of millions of Americans without basic Internet access who disproportionately are poor, recent immigrants, senior citizens or other minorities, these community investments will make broadband more available and more accessible.

The adoption issue will be more difficult to solve. The problem is that even where broadband exists, many Americans simply don’t or won’t subscribe. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that many folks don’t take broadband because of cost or because they don’t want it. We know, for example, that Latinos and African Americans spend more than White Americans for cellular, cable and satellite technologies and features. Yet these same groups are less likely to be connected to broadband than White or Asian Americans. Why? Is it cost? Is it value? Is it availability? Is it a marketing failure? What are the best ways to drive broadband adoption in these communities? The culprit is more likely that many non-subscribers don’t value broadband, because the increased benefits to them and their families simply aren’t apparent. Fundamentally, we need to more fully understand the value versus cost equation. The stimulus package has significant funding to help shed light on the adoption issue and to assist local governments and organizations increase adoption of broadband, particularly among underserved communities.

The Obama administration is taking the right steps. They are beginning the task of identifying the gaps in broadband coverage in the United States. In those areas where broadband is not available, particularly in rural and exurban America, they are putting people to work building broadband networks. They are bringing community access points to libraries, community colleges and community technology centers — to the neighborhoods of tens of millions of Americans. And where broadband is available but adoption rates are low, they are promoting adoption by finding community-specific solutions.The broadband era in America began more than a decade ago. The broadband era in Washington begins today.

Larry Irving is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.