I was asked the other day for my perspective – as I currently live in Europe but am from North America – what I thought of the United States Broadband Stimulus initiative to-date.
Well how do I answer this?
On the surface – I am of course thrilled that the U.S. is recognizing the importance of broadband to remain competitive in today’s economic environment. As we so often say, broadband is the platform for innovation, competiveness and progress in the 21st century. Without this as a foundation, modern societies cannot compete in terms of economic opportunities – or quality of life.
So investing in broadband is a great thing – it creates jobs and opportunities… so far I have not exactly broken new ground with this article.
But beyond our “gut feeling” and pointing to other areas of the world where broadband has meant the difference between stagnation and prosperity – how do we really know how effective stimulus is… and will be? Are we simply checking a box that says “get more folks broadband” or are we taking a measured approach to make sure all the benefits of broadband are realized?
Just recently the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it would be evaluating the economic and social impacts of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). This is important, but just what they’re going to be able to measure remains unclear – as data on impacts will largely depend on what will be provided by each individual initiative, region, program administrator, etc.
With a disparate set of metrics for each project, it becomes difficult to combine data, compare results, or truly know the impact of the Recovery Act’s broadband initiatives.
Let’s be clear on my position – the investment currently underway as part of the stimulus package is truly one of the most significant, and encouraging steps towards the United States building a robust “platform” for innovation – an infrastructure that will change lives and deliver progress not unlike railroad and interstate investments have in the past. But with the benefit of past experience in this field, we all can learn a thing or two about broadband investment, and the right way to go through the process.
Research should be used… not just for validation… but for stronger decisions and strategies. Missing in the application process was the ability for applicants to conduct significant research. With a NOFA (Notice of Fund Availability) coming out weeks before due-dates, made it logistically impossible for regions to gather the intelligence they needed to develop the most effective “ask” – based on identified gaps and prioritized needs. And whenever you administer a study/survey – ask yourself, why are we doing this? Am I just validating what we already did? Validation is nice, but it is passive information. Research should include an “active” component – data that guides better decisions and strategies.
“WHY do I want the money… who wants to know? Each region should be required to have specific goals and outcomes in mind – tied to economic development. Yes it is hard to measure the impacts, but only through precise feedback from a region’s residents and businesses can you have the biggest impact.Let’s not forget that broadband stimulus is part of larger stimulus package designed to create jobs and advance our economy. Each project needs metrics in place to measure the ongoing impact on a region’s economy.
Measure twice… Don’t cut corners. In order to truly understand the impact and potential for further investment, it is imperative that each region takes a measure of where it is before investment, and what those investments produce. Here is where validation comes into play – by doing a “before” and then an “after” study, you are not only able to prove the efficacy of the original investment; you’re able to clearly see where additional investment and/or course correction is required.
Apples and apples… not oranges. Each region should have guidelines for measurement – making results comparable. Just by introducing consistency, regions can learn from each others’ successes – and avoid their failures.
It takes a village. Involving regions citizens and businesses from day one engages them and makes adoption and innovative, transformational solutions much more likely to occur. It is an opportunity missed to not show citizens from day one how broadband (and better broadband) will transform their lives.
It’s the economy, stupid. So a little more than a year after Round One’s application deadline… where are we with broadband stimulus? The easy answer is that we believe that the investment is good and will create opportunities throughout the U.S. But questions will always remain with this as they do any broadband initiative – how much have we achieved… and have we achieved all that we can for the investment we made? Without proper tracking and measurement, it will never be clear how much benefits were realized from the investment, or how to build upon each.
“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.
Our star guest Larry Strickling recently expressed his confidence that broadband service providers will not only provide the detailed supply data requested by his agency (which includes more data elements than has ever been provided for a broadband mapping project), but also that they would waive the confidentially provisions that keep this data from being associated with specific companies. Though we certainly hope Mr. Strickling is correct, we don’t believe this will happen. And, just in case we are right, we recommend that states be ready to gather as much broadband data as they can – without relying too much on carrier cooperation.
We suggest a two-pronged approach. On one hand, states should work closely, in good faith, with carriers to develop ways in which they can provide the data elements set forth in the NOFA while preserving their confidentiality.
However, we warn states against becoming too dependent on carrier cooperation in the design and execution of their broadband mapping programs.
The reason: carriers may perceive the public interest goals of NTIA’s broadband mapping effort as too much at odds with their own self interests. Because the truth is: these companies are run to maximize shareholder value—not the public interest.
On the other hand, states need to build their mapping programs to include a strong multi-source data collection process that not only satisfies NTIA’s requirement for verification of carrier-supplied data, but also can “fill-in” for that data if carriers are either unwilling or unable to provide it. That’s what we call an “augment and verify” strategy.
Isn’t that what Strickling means when he says that if carriers refuse to comply, “There are other ways to collect this [data]: there are survey techniques and other ways to collect this information short of the carrier”? “We have appropriated $350 million” to this task, he continues, and “we are expecting the states to be creative, to be collaborative, to work together, and to find some new ways to collect the data, whether or not it is supplied by the carrier.” And he concludes: “Once that is made clear to [the carriers] at the most senior levels, then this thing will work itself out.”
It’s not so simple…
That’s where we beg to differ. Our guess is that, if we just hope “this thing will work itself out,” it probably won’t – because carriers have decades of practice in stonewalling to get their way. However we agree that, as Strickling suggests, the best way to get carrier cooperation may very well be for each state to gather as much broadband data as it can without relying on them, while continuing to invite their cooperation in a shared national effort to serve the public interest.
We strongly believe that if we heed Strickling’s invitation to be creative and collaborative and “work together… to find… new ways to collect the data,” things may work out just fine mapping efforts can succeed. The choice is up to state decision makers as they evaluate their options in the next two weeks. Our suggestion: work respectfully with carriers to obtain their data on mutually acceptable terms, but also augment and verify.