Issue 8, September 30, 2009

“Public computer centers are key to sustainable broadband adoption”
… why community institutions have a crucial role to play

As the first phase of the Broadband Stimulus moves from the application to the implementation stage, many are already getting ready for the second funding phase. The first phase was marked by a sense of urgency and limited time lines, focusing on infrastructure and mapping. While infrastructure funding will continue to be the most visible core element of the broadband initiative, more emphasis will be placed on “sustainable adoption” and “public resource centers.” We believe that both these funding opportunities offer a key role to community anchor institutions.

The adoption issues are different for businesses and for households. Focusing on households it has been established that lower income households are the one that lag behind. What can be done? Counter-intuitively, it appears that to encourage broadband adoption, it’s not nearly sufficient to subsidize cheaper computers and ISP fees for lower income households. Because, as recently noted in the 2009 Pew Study on US Home Broadband Adoption, the predominant reasons for lack of adoption of broadband are not primarily costs, but “lack of interest or perceived benefits.”

Cost is an important issue, but only the fourth most cited reasons. Mostly, people don’t use high speed Internet because they dont have compelling reasons to do so – it’s about perceived values and benefits. This, along with cost issues, should inform approaches to bridging the digital divide, especially among lower income and elderly households. In other words: the real problem is education. That’s why, rather than make computer ownership cheaper, public authorities which want to encourage broadband adoption should also focus on public computer centers.

The cost-is-a-barrier argument

Let’s debunk the “cost-is-the-barrier” argument. The typical approach to fostering broadband adoption by lower income households is to help them financially purchase computers and get subscriptions. But the fundamental shortcoming of such an approach is that it requires low-income households to re-allocate their very scarce financial resources to purchase a subsidized but still (for them) expensive a computer, and then to make monthly payment for high speed internet services. While the latter may also be subsidized, such subsidies are too often temporary and insufficient to avoid straining family budgets – and then when they end, households are on their own. In many cases, the prime beneficiaries of individualized computer and internet access are the ISPs that gain more paying subscribers from these programs.In Furthermore, as was sadly evident with sub-prime mortgages, the real needs of end-users are too often paid only lip-service by programs backed by profit-seeking companies that view low-income households as “untapped markets” ripe for exploitation. We believe that there are other ways – for example making more public computer centers available to lower income households, as they represent a way to increase broadband access, usage, skills and benefit without pushing unsustainable costs onto them.

Supportive aspect of computer centers

It is pretty clear that public computing centers can be the most effective way of providing access to population groups that currently do not access the internet – including households that do not have an appreciation of the benefits of broadband applications, or the skills to use a computer and the internet. That’s especially relevant because, like libraries in the early 20th century, public computer centers can provide universal access in a cost effective and supportive manner.

The supportive aspect of public computer centers is key – because support is what’s required to enable many households (often older and less digitally-oriented) to take the steps to learn how to use the internet. A supportive environment can assist people to identify the benefits that they can derive from broadband enabled applications. And obviously, a public computer center can provide the technical support to maintain the equipment and connectivity in a cost efficient and sustainable manner, without imposing a financial burden on financially stressed households.

According to the NTIA, community anchor institutions are institutions that have “broadly defined mandates and play a central role in the community,” such as schools, libraries, medical and healthcare providers, public safety entities, community colleges and other institutions of higher education. We believe that community anchor institutions are the best placed to set up and run public computer centers – because they have the physical and organizational infrastructure needed, together with the public mandate.It seems that the NTIA shares our ideas when it defines those institutions as “support organizations and agencies that provide outreach, access, equipment and support services to facilitate the greater use of broadband service by vulnerable populations, including low-income, unemployed and senior citizens.” Within that context, public computer centers are places that “provide broadband access to the general public or a specific vulnerable population, such as low-income, unemployed, aged, children, minorities and people with disabilities.”

Education is key

Community anchors institutions are well suited to the task because they are, at their core, providers of content (ranging from health, education and municipal services to public safety) and that content is one of the most compelling drivers in broadband adoption – especially for older households for whom health services are an increasingly important reason for them to use of broadband. As broadband enables these community anchor institutions to provide increasing levels of service, the motivation for households to use broadband should increase accordingly. However, accessing these emerging services is not simply a
matter of connectivity, because those who would benefit most from them often lack the basic internet and computer literacy skills required to do so. Hence it is in the interest of community anchor institutions to provide training and support to households that face barriers to access of online services – beyond subsidies. Also, as those with experience in adult education will confirm, the most effective training happens when students are motivated because they are learning material that is of direct interest and benefit to them. That’s why providing computer and Internet literacy training, not as an isolated exercise, but within the context of other community services –provided such as health and education, is a powerful way to foster sustainable broadband adoption by lower-income households.

The synergies of public computer centers between community anchor institutions are compelling. The NTIA “notice of funding availability” seems to indicate that the funders at national level are aware of the importance of supportive actions to encourage sustainable adoption, in essence leveraging these synergies. Let’s hope there are community organizations and leaders with the commitment and creativity to make them happen.

By Derek Murphy, SNG

Click here to download this SNG position paper

If you think we can help, or would like to learn more about our broadband sustainable adoption services, please contact us.

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