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Making Universal Service Truly “Universal”

Bowling Green, Ky. (October 21, 2011) -This month the Federal Communications Commission is poised – at last – to take a strong and definitive step forward in shifting the nation’s complex subsidy system for telephone service to one that directly supports broadband. Reforming this system is important, as there are significant differences in broadband availability across the country. Undertaking that reform is difficult and complex – as one would expect with any $8.7 billion per year subsidy program.
But as a society, we cannot not lose sight of the gaping broadband adoption and utilization gap.

As Connected Nation’s Consumer Broadband Adoption Trends report shows, more than 1/3 of Americans have not adopted broadband. Wide swaths of our society are at risk of being left behind – an Internet underclass that could have a longstanding, significant, and detrimental economic and social impact.
Even a sample of these gaps is startling:

  • 31.6 million rural residents do not subscribe to broadband – more than the population of Texas and Wisconsin combined.

  • Only 38% of low-income households in Iowa have broadband at home.

  • Only 15% of low-income seniors in Nevada subscribe to broadband.

  • 17 million children don’t broadband at home, 7.6 million of them in low-income households.

  • Barely half of Hispanic households (51%) subscribe to broadband.

  • 15.4 million adults say that the lack of digital skills is the reason they don’t subscribe to broadband.

  • Our study also shows that the barriers to broadband adoption are complex – cost is important, but so are digital skills, training, and awareness.

To achieve truly “universal” broadband, our society needs to do more than make sure that broadband networks are available – we need to make sure that adoption and use is universal as well. While networks are expensive to build, building them may in fact be the easy part – cracking the code on making sure all Americans use this technology is the key to unlocking the economic and social value of those networks.

To meet this challenge, last week Connected Nation was pleased and proud to have joined with the FCC, private companies, and other noted non-profits in the Connect To Compete initiative, which will promote digital literacy efforts nationwide.

And yesterday, Connected Nation, with the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and One Economy, have [File Removed]an innovative approach to broadband adoption suggested by Aspen Institute Fellow Blair Levin, leader of the National Broadband Plan effort. Because the nation’s adoption and use challenge is multifaceted, this proposal would provide federal support to a myriad of both large and small-scale public-private adoption programs. Support for public-private adoption programs would be awarded through a competitive application and review process, similar to the Department of Education’s Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3) grant programs.

These adoption programs can and should work in concert with subsidies for building networks. A low adoption rate directly affects the economics of broadband deployment.

One example is Puerto Rico, where we are working directly with the government and stakeholders in their broadband strategic plan. Forty percent of Puerto Rico households are below the poverty line, and the overall household broadband adoption rate is only 31%, less than half of the national average. Does anybody doubt that these low adoption numbers help account for the fact that broadband availability in Puerto Rico, at even the most basic of speeds, is far, far behind every state? And since it’s so obvious, wouldn’t it be foolish to subsidize network construction in Puerto Rico without establishing a comprehensive broadband adoption and training program at the same time?

The pattern applies across the country. Low adoption rates are partly responsible for lagging investment in broadband capacity. As such, promoting adoption should be an integral part of the FCC’s strategy to ensure universal broadband access at ever higher speeds. This is why Connected Nation and our partners support Blair Levin’s proposal.

By Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel, Connected Nation