Broadband plan needs to address demand, advocates say

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission must find ways to address demand for broadband, as well as supply, when drafting a national plan, several advocates told commission staff members today.

Broadband providers suggest that less than 10% of U.S. residents don't have access to broadband. But 37% of U.S. adults don't subscribe to broadband, according to a survey released in June by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

And many who don't subscribe believe broadband is too expensive or don't see the benefits, several speakers said at a broadband workshop hosted by the FCC. The agency, tasked with developing a national broadband plan by early next year, needs to show the benefits to those nonsubscribers, particularly elderly people, ethnic minorities and some people in rural areas, they said.

Many rural areas have broadband but there's a lack of tech training available or a lack of local tech support when something goes wrong, said Karen Archer Perry, director of the Connected Communities team at the Knight Center of Digital Excellence. Help with broadband and computers needs to be always available, and many communities lack people who can answer tech questions and demonstrate the advantages of broadband, she said.

Many people are intimidated by terms such as RAM and gigabits, Perry said. "Training is not about a class," she added.

Many elderly people need the same kind of training and tech support, added Charles Davidson, director of the Advanced Communications Law & Policy Institute at the New York Law School. Only about 30% of U.S. people over age 65 have adopted broadband, and in many cases, the elderly don't own home computers, he said.

"The key issue right now [for senior citizens] is about adoption, it's not about availability," Davidson said. "Lack of awareness about broadband, skepticism about its utility and concerns about security and identity theft are other reasons that we've found."

But Davidson and Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, suggested that there are plenty of reasons for older people to be online, particularly because health information and real-time health screening tools are available.

"The Internet is essentially the de facto second opinion in the United States," Fox said.

The FCC's national broadband plan also needs to address the cost of service, added Valerie Fast Horse, director of IT for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho. Since late 2005, the tribe has offered wireless broadband to the 7,000 people on its reservation, but only about 550 people have subscribed, she said.

But at a tribal computer center, the Internet is accessed more than 2,000 times a month, she said. "Broadband is important to them, for whatever reason, but they can't afford to get it at home," she said. "It has to be affordable."

Giving people a stable broadband provider also needs to be part of the demand equation, said Craig Settles, president of Successful.com and a community broadband consultant. In some places, broadband providers have begun to provide service, then backed out, speakers said.

The FCC should focus on local government and other institutional subscribers, not just individual subscribers, he said. Local governments will engage their constituents with services available over broadband, Settles said.

"If you can't get the networks built, and if you can't get an operator or a community to run that network year after year because they can't get enough individual subscribers, the network itself is going to fail, and all of the rest of this discussion isn't going to matter," he said.

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