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Will Subsidized Rates for Broadband Spur Adoption? We're About to Find Out

(March 3, 2011) - Later today, the
Federal Communications Commission will formally propose a series of "pilot" programs to promote broadband adoption by low-income households. It plans to do this by shifting funds from the existing billion-dollar "Lifeline" and "Link-Up" programs, which now offer discounted telephone service to low-income households.

Will it work? Maybe.

There is no question low-income households don't adopt broadband at the same rate as middle- and high-income families.

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There is also no doubt that broadband adoption and use are absolutely vital to ensure high quality education for all our children, improve healthcare, and grow the economy. Overcoming this "adoption gap" is just as vital to the future of our society as the challenges of electrification and telephone service posed in the last century.

But while many households do not adopt broadband because they cannot afford it, study after study has shown that there are in fact multiple barriers to broadband adoption. While specific numbers vary, research by the
FCC, Department of Commerce, and Connected Nation have identified that among households that don't adopt broadband, three separate adoption gaps exist -- an "income gap,” an "ethnic/minority gap,” and a "digital skills" gap.

While programs that lower the cost of broadband may solve the income gap, the other two gaps may still persist.

Yesterday, my friend Blair Levin, former executive director of the FCC's National Broadband Plan task force,
suggested that a range of alternative options should be considered instead of blindly subsidizing lower rates.

While I disagree with some of his ideas (such as tying subsidies to student grade-point averages, an idea that might only transform the adoption gap into an achievement gap), I do agree that experimenting with adoption is a good idea that should be encouraged.

And, while that experimentation is occurring, Connected Nation already is deploying a number of adoption programs addressing each of these gaps.

    • In Tennessee, Computers 4 Kids is working with the foster care system and Boys & Girls clubs to offer training and laptops to teenaged foster youths.

  • In Ohio, the Every Citizen Online program offers digital literacy skills classes at hundreds of libraries and community colleges statewide.

We have already seen that these and similar programs have improved broadband adoption and usage, but there is no silver bullet solution for closing the broadband adoption gap.

Expanded Lifeline and LinkUp programs may improve the chances of success, but we don’t really know. Only now are data being collected that will let us adapt and grow adoption programs in an efficient, effective way. The FCC's proposal to fund a series of low-income pilots is an important step forward, but the development should cause us to redouble our efforts to reach and teach those Americans who are not yet touched by broadband technology.

By Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel, Connected Nation