One good thing came out of the pandemic: Politicians across America have finally recognized that Internet access in 2022 is not a luxury, it is a necessity. And Congress stepped up to the plate and passed the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Job Act, dedicating more money to closing the digital divide than ever before.
The recipe for achieving ubiquitous broadband requires three things: deployment, affordability, and adoption. For the past couple of decades, however, the U.S. has taken a “Field of Dreams” approach that ignores the last element. Our government approach’s operating assumption is “if you build the network, consumers will use it.” The data show that simply isn’t the case.
One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access 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 NTCA in just the past year showed that broadband adoption in areas where it is available dips from 99% in the age range from 18-29 to 75% in older demographics. Lack of adoption is also linked to level of education, from 71% in less than high school education to 98% in college graduates. The fact remains that getting Americans connected hinges on a lack of digital literacy and awareness, which runs the gamut from not understanding the technology itself to not realizing 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 13th, there was a bipartisan breath of relief that the ball is rolling.
The Biden Administration is following the same tired playbook in focusing on buildout
Unfortunately, a closer analysis suggests the Biden Administration is following the same, tired playbook by placing the primary focus on buildout. The BEAD Program makes $42.45 billion available for broadband via grants to the States. States must prioritize buildout in unserved areas before moving on to underserved areas (or at least show that they have a plan to get access to an unserved area). The discussion of “non-deployment activities” for spurring adoption is short and relatively vague, almost like an afterthought.
Here’s one problem: States are not homogenous in terms of unserved areas. States like Kansas and West Virginia have significant (largely rural) unserved areas, while states like Maryland, Connecticut, or Florida have few. So NTIA’s focus on broadband deployment means that States with fewer unserved areas are likely to focus their spending on additional buildout in areas that are already served (i.e., overbuilding), which is inefficient and likely unnecessary. After all, why spend scarce dollars to build out more in areas that already have broadband? Such an approach ignores the adoption prong of a successful broadband plan.
We need to adjust how we think of our priorities. Instead of implementing a field-of-dreams broadband plan, policymakers should ask themselves, if broadband is laid using federal infrastructure funding, but no one elects to adopt it, what have we accomplished? Probably nothing.
States don’t need to follow the 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 on adoption projects once they bring affordable broadband to all unserved areas. Education, outreach, and digital literacy are paramount in furthering Congress’s bipartisan goals. States should give more priority to educating consumers via digital equity programs (e.g., digital literacy education, broadband sign-up assistance, and remote learning facilities) once they have reached the unserved.
It’s time for States to formalize programs to Get Out The Adoption. States should hire people to knock on doors and leave pamphlets that let low-income Americans, minority and Tribal Americans, and veterans know there is a subsidy program available to them, how to apply, what the services are, and how to get access (and plus–that’s job creation!).
States should provide pop-ups like knock-off Genius bars in neighborhoods with historically low adoption rates where people can go to 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 a lot of those of us who work online every day take for granted as obvious.
Any funding program designed to bridge the digital divide needs to account for deployment, affordability, and adoption. And it is a fundamental economic principle—the more people see the value proposition and the less intimidated they are in using the technology, the more likely they are to adopt the technology. This cannot be an “if you build it, they will come.” We need to make the case for why we’re 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 contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
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