Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Deepening the Digital Divide: Broadband Breakfast

One good thing has come out of the pandemic: Politicians across America have finally recognized that internet access in 2022 isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. And Congress stepped in and passed the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act, devoting more money than ever to closing the digital divide.

The recipe for achieving ubiquitous broadband requires three elements: deployment, affordability and adoption. Over the past two decades, however, the United States has adopted a “Field of Dreams” approach that ignores the last element. The operating assumption of our government approach is “if you build the network, consumers will use it”. The data shows that this is simply not the case.

One of the biggest issues with bringing broadband to all Americans is not just deployment, but adoption of the technology. Household income, region, race, and even the pandemic all play intertwined roles.

A study by the NTCA over the last year showed that broadband adoption in areas where it is available drops from 99% in the 18-29 age bracket to 75% in the age groups older demographics. Lack of adoption is also linked to education level, from 71% among those with less than a high school diploma to 98% among college graduates. The fact remains that connecting Americans depends on a lack of digital literacy and awareness, which ranges from not understanding the technology itself to not realizing that the program is there in the first place.

So when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released its rules for the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program on May 13, there was a breath of bipartisan relief that the ball rolls.

The Biden administration is following the same tired playbook in focusing on building

Unfortunately, closer analysis suggests the Biden administration is following the same tired playbook with a focus on building. The BEAD program makes $42.45 billion available for broadband through grants to states. States must prioritize building in unserved areas before moving to underserved areas (or at least show they have a plan to access an unserved area). The discussion of “non-deployment activities” to drive adoption is short and relatively vague, almost like an afterthought.

Here’s a problem: States aren’t homogeneous in terms of unserved areas. States like Kansas and West Virginia have significant unserved (largely rural) areas, while states like Maryland, Connecticut, or Florida have few. Thus, the NTIA’s focus on broadband deployment means that states with fewer unserved areas are likely to focus spending on additional construction in already served areas (i.e. overbuilding ), which is inefficient and probably unnecessary. After all, why spend little money to build more in areas that already have broadband? Such an approach ignores the adoption component of a successful broadband plan.

We need to adjust our thinking to our priorities. Instead of implementing a dream broadband plan, policy makers should ask themselves, if broadband is brought in with federal infrastructure funding, but no one chooses to adopt it, what do we have accomplished? Probably nothing.

States do not need to follow NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment

The good news for states with fewer unserved areas is that they don’t need to follow NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment. The rules allow them to use federal funds for adoption projects once they have affordable broadband in place in all unserved areas. Education, awareness and digital literacy are paramount to advancing the bipartisan goals of Congress. States should place a higher priority on educating consumers through digital equity programs (e.g., digital literacy education, broadband sign-up assistance, and learning facilities at distance) once they have reached unserved people.

It’s time for states to formalize programs to get adoption out. States should hire people to knock on doors and leave pamphlets to let low-income Americans, American minorities and tribes, and veterans know that there is a grant program available to them, how to apply, what are services and how to access them (and what’s more, it’s job creation!).

States should provide pop-ups like counterfeit Genius Bars in neighborhoods with historically low adoption rates where people can go get help with devices or troubleshoot their newly acquired access. States should teach new users how to practice good cyber hygiene; show them how telehealth can make their lives easier. States should create programs to educate new users about things that many of us who work online every day take for granted as obvious.

Any funding program designed to bridge the digital divide must consider deployment, affordability and adoption. And it’s a fundamental economic principle: the more people see the value proposition and the less intimidated they are to use the technology, the more likely they are to adopt the technology. It can’t be a “if you build it, they will come”. We need to explain why we are doing all of this in the first place. If it’s really worth $42.45 billion, then let’s make it so.

Kate Forscey is a Fellow of the Digital Progress Institute and Director and Founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She served as Senior Technology Policy Advisor to Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and Policy Advisor at Public Knowledge. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast welcomes comments from knowledgeable observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to [email protected] Opinions expressed in expert reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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