Published by Forbes on August 7, 2019
By Roslyn Layton
An article of faith among some policy advocates is that fiber networks should be built to every residence in the US and that all people are entitled to high-speed, low-cost access. This “supply side” view is fundamentally flawed because it fails to incorporate the diverse needs of individual users. The point is simply illustrated by the fact that people adopt services, not networks. That broadband speeds grow faster than people’s desires to subscribe to them indicates that internet adoption is more complex than advocates realize. The experience of Comcast’s Internet Essentials (IE), now a leading broadband adoption program for low-income Americans, highlights that effective broadband policy must incorporate a multitude of demand-side factors.
The key scholar on the Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers, described how technological adoption is primarily a social, not economic, process. His research focused on how farmers adopted agricultural innovation and the role of trusted peers to introduce new tools and methods. This seminal work is crucial to understanding and address the major barriers to broadband adoption—digital literacy training and relevance, equipment, and cost. Notably the IE program addresses these pieces, along with the essential social element of a network of tens of thousands of partners to help families cross the digital divide.
When Comcast launched the program, it focused on families with children eligible for a free lunch under the National School Lunch Program but has since expanded to seniors, veterans, residents of public housing, and community college students. IE customers receive Internet service for less than $10 per month; the option to purchase a subsidized computer for less than $150, and free in-person, online, and printed digital literacy training. This reflects an investment of some $650 million dollars to support digital literacy training and awareness, which some 9.5 million people have accessed. Based upon the success of IE, the program is now expanded to all qualified low-income households in Comcast’s service area, a move likely to double the total number of eligible households for the program to more than three million additional low-income households. These are households with people of different needs including those with disabilities, parents of young children, and seniors. John Horrigan, earlier at Pew and now the Tech Policy Institute, has assiduously documented the importance of digital skills training within broadband adoption. His most recent work describes the benefits for kids and schoolwork drive broadband subscriptions, but digital skills training opens doors to household internet use for jobs and learning.
Some advocates suggest that the ability to have multiple streams of Frasier on Netflix should be the proxy for a standard internet connection. While entertainment is highly individualized and privately valuable, there is far greater social value in the ability to check health information, send email, read news, and maintain connections with friends and family. These services do not necessarily require high speeds, and indeed many companies would like to offer these services for free or low cost with a private subsidy. Moreover, these services are easily accessible on mobile wireless networks for which the subscription rate exceeds population.
That Comcast has invested so heavily in getting first time users on the network reflects the reality that the market for broadband grows more competitive by the day. Multiple mobile operators are offering gigabit speeds via 5G networks, and satellite providers have launched 100 Mbps service. Fortunately the Federal Communications Commission recognizes this, and has streamlined cable regulation per Congress’ intent, leveling the playing field for competing networks. Notably Comcast is redoubling its commitment to IE without any regulatory mandate to do so. When operators can differentiate their service to meet the differentiated needs of users, we will get far greater Internet adoption than from one-size-fits-all policies.
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