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The Social Value of Getting Older Americans On-Line

(May 10, 2011) - Mother's Day is still one of the busiest days of t
he year for traditional telephone companies. For an hour or two last Sunday, millions of younger Americans put down their iPads, logged out of Facebook, and ceased tweeting to call Mom or Grandma over the plain, ordinary telephone network.

It is well-documented that older Americans, especially those 70 and over, are among the least likely to be online. Today, I am honored to speak at the launch of the Get Connected event of Project GOAL (Getting Older
Adults online) in Washington, DC. I have been privileged to work with Debra Berlyn, the executive director of Project GOAL, for longer than either of us would care to admit, and Connected Nation is proud to serve on the Project’s Advisory Committee. I hope that the launch will spark a policy debate on the importance of connecting older Americans to the Internet. Connected Nation's research shows that only 31% of adults age 70 or older subscribe to broadband at home, and both computer, mobile, and Internet use is significantly lower among the elderly.

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But does this adoption gap matter? Is there a crying need for real-time “relationship status” updates, or easier methods of sharing photos of grandchildren? Is it really that hard simply to call home?

The adoption gap among older adults does have a
n impact, well beyond the benefits of reading a grandchild’s tweets. Take, for example e-health. Broadband-enabled e-health applications like patient monitoring can save billions of dollars in costs for heart disease and diabetes every year. But older Americans use the Internet for health services at only half the rate as younger Americans. In addition, one study by my former colleagues at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Economic and Public Policy Studies has shown that digitally connected older Americans are significantly less likely to be depressed. Our society could reap significant social welfare gains if we were to improve that 31 percent elderly adoption rate.

So, how can it be done? Perhaps we can start with three simple ideas.

First, digital literacy training -- with a focus not only on basic computer skills but also privacy and security, such as lessons on how to pick a good password. CN is doing such a project in Ohio. Many of us first experienced the Internet through the workplace or school -- but the entire generation of elderly Americans has not had that opportunity. Research shows that broadband adoption is facilitated by trusted intermediary or trainer, so a strategy of recruiting younger Americans to help connect their parents and their grandparents may succeed.

Second, we can reform and be more creative in the federal Lifeline and Link-Up programs. These $1 billion per year programs currently subsidize dialtone service for millions of low-income older Americans. A simple change such as letting low-income families use Lifeline funds to help pay for bundles of voice and broadband service is a simple proposal that could go a long way to connecting older Americans. We also could transform those programs to support broadband directly.

And finally, perhaps we should think about broadband utilization and not simply broadband adoption among older Americans. Medical devices are being invented that will utilize ubiquitous broadband to provide better healthcare at home, particularly for chronic conditions like diabetes in which regular testing and monitoring are important. An older diabetic may never subscribe to broadband, but a ubiquitous broadband network and robust market for broadband-enabled devices and applications can help society reap the benefits of delivering life-saving and cost-effective e-health solutions.

In short, there are a lot reasons to ensure that every person in America utilizes broadband to the greatest extent possible, regardless of age. Getting older adults on-line is about more than sharing photo albums of grandchildren – it is about bringing all parts of our economy and society into the Information Age.

By Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel, Connected Nation