Federal Communications Commission

Understanding Broadband Needs in a Diverse America

November 5th, 2009 by Mark Lloyd - Associate General Counsel / Chief Diversity Officer

 We need much richer data on who does not have access to broadband and who is not adopting broadband and why.  The answers we have are not sufficient to help us craft an intelligent National Broadband Plan to promote advanced telecommunications services to all Americans.  We need more granular information.  This was the message of the first panel in the workshop on Broadband Access and Adoption on Diversity and Civil Rights Issues held at the FCC earlier this month. 

As FCC Consumer Research Director Dr. John Horrigan stated, several studies suggest that “broadband adoption in the United States stands at close to two-thirds of Americans.” But these studies are problematic on a number of fronts.  The first problem is that the studies assume that we already have a clear definition of broadband, when, as Santa Clara Law Professor Catherine Sandoval noted, not even the FCC has been reliable about the definition of broadband.  The definition of broadband is made even more complicated by the suggestion that some groups are adopting wireless broadband, when we do not have sufficient information about which applications are available to this rising group of wireless broadband users.   
Dr. Horrigan also noted that “education and income are the two strongest predictors of whether you have broadband at home.”  But education and income are not the only predictors.  Region, ethnicity, and other factors are also important.  As Rutgers Dean Jorge Schement said, “it's not just about money; there's something else going on that prevents people in the same income group from having the same levels of access to information technology.  Technology access is also dependent on aspects of ethnicity.” 
Jim Tobias, President of Inclusive Technologies, picked up this theme in his presentation  and argued that “People with disabilities are as diverse as any other population, even with respect to their disability.  The technological needs, the market behavior of people who are hard-of-hearing is different from those who are deaf, is different from those who are blind, who have low vision.”  Other panelists noted the vast differences among other population groups we treat as a block, including youth, the elderly, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans.   
Professor Sandoval also noted that research focused on the rural-urban divide needs to be more fine-tuned.  “Federal rules basically exclude areas that contain certain major cities.  If you went to an extremely rural places in central California, what you would see is people picking strawberries and other crops in the field, yet, because of their proximity to Fresno, they are not defined as rural, and, therefore, become ineligible for certain types of rural support.”  Mark Pruner, President of the Native American Broadband Association, noted that zip codes and census tract measurements have sometimes excluded Native American communities entirely. 
The themes of diversity and complexity were pressed repeatedly by the panel.  Panelists agreed about the need to be much more specific about technology applications and usability, and about the importance of research in the language of the non-adopting population. 
Professor Sandoval suggested that the research conducted by the California Emerging Technology Fund should serve as one model.  CETF has been conducting research in six different languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Korean.  One result is that they are better able to understand the vast differences among Asian Americans.  The adoption and access among the Hmong population and the Filipino population are much lower than other Asian American communities.  Understanding access and adoption in a nation as diverse at the U.S. requires research tools that better reflect that diversity.  And that means larger sample sizes, multi-language polls, and an increase in the number of face-to-face interviews. 
As Dean Schement said, “Disaggregating data does not mean that we see everybody's differences alone.  What it means is that we pay attention to nuances rather than lumping everybody together and trying to achieve one, big outcome.”   
The panelists also noted it was important to be sensitive to the different experiences with technology as we seek to understand adoption patters.  Tobias made the point that many people in the disability community develop a “technological pessimism,” because they have so often experienced interacting with technology that simply did not work for them or technology that was very expensive to adapt to their needs.  Tobias also said, “You don't see people with disabilities featured prominently in some of those glorious, glowing commercials about broadband and Internet access; it's always the on-the-go executive storming down the street or the kid Twittering on a skateboard.  People with disabilities are not featured there, and so they might think ‘it doesn't seem like this technology is for me.’”
Although this panel focused on the challenges of measuring an increasingly diverse nation, they all emphasized the importance of broadband service to all Americans.  Mark Pruner told the story of fellow Native Americans.  “Three people flew all the way from Barrow, Alaska, the very northern point in Alaska, [and it] took them 24 hours to get from there to Washington.  One of them [told] us about how Internet service is used there: it's satellite-based.  Sixty-five percent of the people in this remote native village use the Internet, and it's not a very high income area, but when they have to make a choice between having running water and having Internet service, they pick the Internet service.” 

This is the second of a four-part series on Diversity and Civil Rights Issues in Broadband Adoption.



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