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Broadband Adoption: If We Build It, Will They Come?

August 25th, 2009 by Brian David - Adoption and Usage Director, Omnibus Broadband Initiative

Brian DavidOne of the challenges facing the Broadband Task Force is a question inspired by the 1989 classic film, "Field of Dreams": if we build it, will they come?  As John mentioned in his post, the 37% of Americans who have not adopted home broadband have a unique set of concerns, needs and barriers to overcome. Our two afternoon workshops on Wednesday, "Low adoption and utilization" and "Programmatic efforts to increase adoption and usage," addressed this topic.

The speakers during the panel on low adoption represented demographic groups who tend to have high numbers of non-adopters as well as the businesses and organizations working to bring those groups online.  We heard from speakers on the reasons why senior citizens, Native Americans, small business owners, Americans living in rural areas and African Americans tend to be underrepresented relative to the general population.  While at first glance these are very different groups, what was striking was the common thread-people will adopt when they feel they have the skills, devices and applications they need to shape and control their broadband experience. And they will do so more readily when they have the "social infrastructure" of family, friends and neighbors that is already broadband-adopting. That infrastructure is critical both because it prompts them to adopt broadband, and because it trains and supports them as they figure out a new technology (and in many cases, figure out how to use a computer for the first time).

Our final panel of the day picked up on this point by bringing together a group of folks representing the many programs designed to get people the skills, devices and applications they need.  Again, a few common themes emerged.  Successful programs tend to have high personal interaction in the initial stages (see ‘social infrastructure" point above), content packaged in a way that is accessible to the user, and an end goal that sees broadband as a tool to enrich life.  One other key takeaway from this group was the notion that an adoption program's success can and should be measured.  Developing those metrics for evaluation will be one of the many areas where will be seeking additional input.

When the other members of the Adoption team read this blog post, they told me my Field of Dreams reference was too obvious, so I figured I should go for something more obscure to end.  At one point in the film, as the main character is starting to give up on his vision of building a ball field, he hears a voice again.  This time it says to him "go the distance."  In the coming months, we'll be looking to "go the distance" toward increasing adoption rates among all Americans, and we'll be reaching out for your help along the way.

9 Responses to “Broadband Adoption: If We Build It, Will They Come?”

  1. Fred Pilot says:

    This question reflects the current flawed top down mindset when it comes to advanced telecommunications infrastructure that has contributed to the current situation where the United States is chock a block with broadband black holes, even in metro areas.

    Instead, the policy should provide incentives for bottom up, grassroots action to encourage locals to build their own last and middle mile fiber infrastructure. They have the greatest stake in its construction and are far more likely to utilize it if they own the fiber that connects to their premises. These incentives could for example include seed funding and low cost loans for consumer owned telecom cooperatives and tax incentives to allow homeowners to deduct their share of initial capitalization/debt costs to construct this badly needed infrastructure that's so critical to the nation's economic viability.

    Fred Pilot http://eldotelecom.blogspot.com

  2. Brian David says:

    Fred - Thanks for your response. You raise some interesting ideas about how to get people invested in broadband, literally. We will be exploring this topic further in our workshop on September 1st, which brings together state and local officials who have done innovative things to build networks and create adoption programs in their communities. No matter who builds the networks, we still need to explore ideas on how to reach the 30+% percent of Americans who already have access to broadband today at their home, but have chosen not to purchase it. That is the problem our workshop on low adoption was exploring, and it is a question we will continue to explore.

  3. Fred Pilot says:

    You are framing the issue far too narrowly.

    It has to be more broadly defined (pun intended) than \broadband\ and instead as Internet protocol-based advanced telecommunications services. Fiber-based telecommunications infrastructure to the premises can deliver various IP-based services including voice, business class symmetric Internet connectivity and video. With this menu of services, there is something for everyone and take rates will naturally increase since nearly all households desire voice and video service.

    Fred Pilot http://eldotelecom.blogspot.com

  4. Steve Forstner says:

    I live 1 mile outside of a small rural village in Western Michigan. DSL is not available here. I have contacted AT&T stores and service representatives many times about DSL and have always been put off. Finally I cornered an AT&T repairman who explained that because my small town shares an exchange with a neighborhing town about 10 miles away, I will probably NEVER be able to get DSL.

    Since there is no cable, the lack of DSL leaves me with 2 choices, either wireless through Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, Alltel, etc. Or, I can purchase a satellite system with a $300+ upfront fee. The wireless choices run about $70 a month for service that may be 10 to 15 times faster than dialup and most have a 5gb monthly cap. (I realize the advertised speeds are higher than this, but the actuality in rural areas is often different). Satellite service also is capped and about the same cost. Usage caps are a major stumbling block for using either of these services.

    When I read that rural Americans will adopt broadband "when they have the skills, devices and applications ... to shape and control their broadband experience," I have to shake my head in wonder. The problem isn't with our skills--it's with our budgets. Most of us find it hard to part with $70 to $100 a month for service that is of significantly lower quality than our townie bretheren who can get better speeds and unlimited usage with a $19 a month DSL plan.

    Broadband is a major topic of conversation in most of the rural areas that I have been in. People are sharing information about satellite and wireless. We are comparing plans and trying to figure out which options will be the least expensive and provide service that is at least passable. We are waiting for this broadband revolution to catch up to us and many of us fear we are already passed over and being left behind. These are people of all races and all ages. I know as many 70+ year olds who rely on the internet as I do younger people. For many in rural areas, the internet has become a road to the outside. It is a source of information, education and entertainment. We pay our bills online and operate our businesses online--and we do it all at the speed of dialup.

    Broadband delivery is in large part an economic issue and I appreciate this. I know the first areas to be served are those that are in close proximity to urban areas where there is a captive group of consumers that can use the product and drive the price down by economies of scale. But, there must be better options made available for rural communities also. Without a massive infusion of tax dollars wired/fiber service may never be available in rural communities. But, there are other options that may be feasible and should be explored. The goal should be to provide a minimum level of service to all areas of the country that is unlimited, under $30 a month and fast enough to at least make the experience passable.

    In any case, please don't lump all rural residents together as being too unsophisticated to understand the internet, broadband or the tools that we have. We understand it, but for many of us, it is like a starving man watching fish in the aquarium. We can see it, we just can't touch it.

  5. Lev Gonick says:

    Brian, Your blog post and much of the discussion thus far regarding broadband, and in particular FTTX, has been cast in terms of a national fabric (If we build "IT", will they come). To be sure, the FCC's mandate is a national broadband plan. That being said, the most compelling 'best practice' are 'big' local efforts. In particular, as we look to innovation and provider-side sustainability strategies (health, energy management, education, public safety) smart connected communities are the authentic patches in a national quilt that will make our broadband economy impactful. Specifically, I would like to see conversation around regional innovation zones that are choreographed between great public sector anchor institutions like universities, health care teaching hospitals, libraries, museums, public broadcasters, schools, and other public service providers. In my experience, as the pioneering architect of the "OneCommunity" model (www.onecommunity.org), "the" big broadband idea is the development of an integrated public services platform on fiber to the premise (FTTX) and positions us to leverage our technology to attend to real community priorities like public and neighborhood safety, health and wellness, education and 21st century skills, and energy management.

  6. MBrown says:

    I second what Steve said. When I was living in rural coastal Maine, I started my own small business. The first few years, I was able to get by with dialup, but as things took off, and file sizes grew (new generations of software) and online research and communication became more important, it wasn't enough. At the time, wireless was not available and satellite was twice the cost it is now. And anyway, neither option would've delivered the kind of reliability and bandwidth I needed. When I kicked the issue up to a middle manager at Verizon I was told flat out the same thing Steve was: We will likely NEVER get broadband. Thinking that perhaps Verizon needed to actually see how many customers would immediately sign up for their service, I put together a petition and had 100 signatures in a week, with many more probable had I continued. Thinking 100 was pretty good, I sent it in to Verizon and got no response. I'm not sorry that I didn't keep getting signatures, because I realize now it wouldn't have mattered.

    In Maine small businesses are a big part of the economy, and as it happens a large proportion of the population live in rural areas. I find it incredible that the mindset of the people in charge of deciding whether to invest in broadband service is such that they think Farmer Joe maybe has too many hayseeds in his ears to be able to use, to want to use, broadband. It makes me realize how out of touch these folks are, and what a huge disservice they're doing to a large part of the population.

    I eventually rented an office in town (at a good monthly chunk of my income that would've been in my paycheck had I been able to work from home) and commuted. I've since moved out of the state to work on-site for a company that hired me fulltime, and I'm delighted with the widely available broadband that is completely taken for granted in cities. When I tell locals in my new hometown that many places in the US lack broadband, they can't believe it. They assume that it's "everywhere", like electricity.

    Not only can rural people understand how to use broadband, but they want it--and in many cases need it--to run their businesses, get educated, use services, pay taxes, and on and on. I think the whole thing is pretty sad...

  7. Jim Tobias says:

    People with disabilities face additional issues regarding broadband adoption; both technological (when one or more links in the delivery of content is not accessible to them in some way) and socio-psychological (e.g., weak social networks, pessimism about accessibility). These can be overcome; indeed, there are some exemplary programs that do so on a retail level. But wholesale improvements may require policy changes; these in turn should be based on research into disability-specific non-adoption factors, and how other factors like low income and educational attainment affect the market behavior of people with disabilities.

  8. Guest says:

    My mother lives in a rural area about 20 miles outside of any sort of wired internet access with the exception of Pay Per Minute Dial Up! (Maud, Oklahoma)

    She pays nearly 100 dollars per month for satellite "broadband" with a hard data cap of something like 100 MB, and latencies to US servers of 10,000 milliseconds. It isn't worth the money but the 5 minutes that she gets of use out of it per day is enough to keep her paying. Her kids are in public schools and often need to upload and download papers and do reserach online, which is impossible with such a connection. In addition none of her kids want to stay at home because they can't play games or chat with their friends online, people in rural areas without wired broadband are suffering, they are lagging behind in society when they desperately want to be part of it.

    Hughesnet selling their sattelite internet as "broadband" is a scam and the definition of broadband needs to take into acount latency, the lack of hard data caps, and speeds, all of which must be sufficient to transmit current HD video and be quick enough for real-time collaboration.

    They will pay. They will adopt. Even poorer residents will be happy to pay whatever they are able to get some sort of network connection that is appropriate.

  9. David Soderquist says:

    As a college educated, retire technology teacher and school district technology director who happens to live in a rural area, I am insulted by the mindset that "us" rural folks need to get educated in the benefits of broadband in order to adopt it. As several comments have pointed out - its not a matter of desire - its a simple matter of access to what's on-par in urban America.

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