FCC Probes Demand Side of Broadband Debate

As it continues its series of meetings working toward a national broadband plan, the Federal Communications Commission this morning considered what to some is the most important, and overlooked, aspect of the broadband debate: adoption.

Much of the discussion about how to bridge the digital divide has focused on how to spur new build-outs of faster, farther-reaching networks. But the demand-side question remains: If you build it, will they come?

That challenge is borne out in the data. While the vast majority of Americans have access to high-speed Internet service, just 63 percent of U.S. households have a broadband connection, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the gold standard of market research for broadband policymakers.

At the same time, that figure represented a 15 increase from the previous year, leading some to question how serious the broadband adoption problem really is.

“Broadband adoption has been one of the fastest technology adoption stories in our history,” Link Hoewing, Verizon’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said at this morning’s meeting.

But Hoewing and others acknowledged that certain segments of the population, such as minorities, seniors and low-income Americans, might still be left out of the broad migration to high-speed service.

In such debates, ISPs are often put on the defensive by critics who accuse them of prohibitive pricing or failing to invest in the unserved and underserved areas of the country. In response, they sometimes shift the focus to the demand side of the equation, arguing that the digital divide is largely a product of poor computer literacy efforts and failure to educate certain population segments about the benefits of technology.

For Hoewing, that criticism extends to the usability of some of the most essential sites, such as those with information about Medicare benefits.

“The online Web sites are just not as intuitive as they should be for seniors,” he said.

For seniors, the least-wired population segment according to Pew’s data, access to health information is seen as one of the most important pieces of the broadband adoption riddle.

Pew’s Susannah Fox has focused much of her research on how Americans use the Web to retrieve health information, such as blogs and videos to supplement the information they get from their doctor.

“The Internet is essentially the de facto second opinion in the United States,” she said of those with broadband connections.

The panelists generally agreed that more could be done in the form of outreach, such as programs at senior centers and libraries and other community anchor institutions, to spur digital literacy.

“In every community I go to, I figure at least half of those people are ready to be online and get over the hump,” said Karen Archer Perry, director of the Connected Communities Team at the Knight Center of Digital Excellence.

“Training is not about a class,” she said. “Training is about a social infrastructure” where members of a community help people overcome their barriers to technology.

“Those people are going to bring their friends,” Perry said.

The February economic stimulus package allocated $7.2 billion for broadband projects, of which a minimum of $250 million was set aside for projects to spur adoption, with another $200 million earmarked for public computing facilities.

Perry also urged the FCC to take a nuanced approach with regard to the data it collects on broadband adoption. She argued that raw numbers about broadband subscribers don’t tell the full story about adoption, calling on the commission to “measure the intensity of applications” people are using as it crafts the national broadband strategy.

“What would happen if we collected data right where the action is?” said Kate Williams, an assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois. Like Perry, she highlighted the incomplete and often conflicting nature of the data in the broadband debate, and suggested the FCC partner with ISPs to collect usage data at the application level, like the way a scanner reads and relays information from items on the conveyor belt at the supermarket.

Williams proposed idea of a “data commons” to get around the problem that currently bedevils the broadband debate, where a glut of studies, many proprietary and locked behind corporate walls, result in panel discussions and other public forums devolving into a rhetorical exercise in dueling stats.

The FCC has emphasized that its broadband reporting will be “data-driven,” and is currently in the midst of a fact-finding mission that includes sessions like this morning’s as it moves toward the set of policy recommendations it is due to present to Congress in February.

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