Who else wants national broadband?

Let's say that the Federal Communications Commission's $15.5 billion broadband deployment plan helps produce the fastest nationwide broadband network in the world -- is there any guarantee that more people will use it?

Here's the problem: surveys conducted by both the Federal Communications Commission and the Pew Research Center have found that roughly one-fifth of people who don't use broadband in the United States say they don't feel comfortable accessing the Web, while another fifth of non-users say they don't see the need for broadband connectivity. In other words, you can build all the 100Mbps Web connections you want but it doesn't necessarily mean that it will lead to universal adoption.

The FCC's National Broadband Plan: 4 Big Hopes

To its credit the FCC recognizes this potential pitfall, which is why it has included a series of recommendations in its national broadband plan aimed at spurring wider broadband adoption. Among other things, the FCC advises launching a government-sponsored National Digital Literacy Corps that will teach communities how to properly use broadband technology in libraries, museums and other community centers; exploring the use of mobile technology as a gateway to more robust broadband use; and creating an online digital literacy portal to "create high-quality online lessons that users can access and use at their own pace."

There is no one right way to promote broadband adoption, of course, which is why the FCC is recommending several options simply to get a better idea of what works. For example, there are different challenges in promoting broadband in urban areas where people have access to broadband but not a perceived need for it and in rural areas where users might have neither the access nor the perceived need, according to John Horrigan, the consumer research director at the FCC.

"Rural Americans are more likely to have infrastructure availability problems," says Horrigan, who notes that only 50% of Americans in rural areas currently use broadband in their homes versus 65% of Americans in the country as a whole. "But if we did build out into rural areas there would be some rural Americans who would sign up for get broadband right away since they might already have experience with broadband at work but not at home."

But this doesn't mean that there aren't big-picture outlines that can be applied in both rural and urban settings. In fact, Horrigan says that the FCC recommends employing a comprehensive broadband promotion that will tackle as many barriers to adoption as possible. This means helping non-adopters get access to computers, educating them on how to best navigate the Web and helping them understand which Internet applications might be most useful to their daily lives. So while there may be different issues in encouraging broadband deployment in different communities, the overall tactics for showing people the virtues of broadband use tend to be similar.

Keep it simple, smarty

When it comes to broadband education, one organization that has been working on such a comprehensive solution to broadband adoption has been OneCommunity, a nonprofit dedicated to providing public and nonprofit institutions in Northern Ohio with high-speed fiber connections. Earlier this year the group received $18.7 million in broadband stimulus funds to promote broadband adoption and training in Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, Florida and Kentucky. OneCommunity CEO Scot Rourke says that educating users about broadband becomes much easier once you take away all the tech jargon that can be intimidating to first-time users. Rather, he says that the focus should be on giving people concrete, easy-to-understand uses for the technology that they will want to learn about.

"Technology is just a tool," he says. "And when you're teaching people about broadband what you want to do is inspire them and talk about the benefits and uses of the technology. So you could ask someone if they've ever thought of a quick way to send around pictures of their grandchildren, whether they're interested in free health services available over the Web or whether there are free career counseling services over the Web.”

Horrigan says that while there is little conclusive social science to help define the best ways of teaching people to be more comfortable with broadband, he has generally found that showing people immediate concrete benefits is the best way to hook them on the importance of the Web. In this regard, he says that starting with a basic application such as e-mail, with which they can instantly communicate with friends and family, will give them a solid grounding and can pave the way for them to tackle more complex applications.

"When it comes to training older Americans especially, you want to quickly get people partners they can email so that they have people to turn to for help when not in a classroom setting,"he says. "This will help build a kind of social infrastructure.”

The role of wireless?

But how about promoting broadband adoption for younger people who may know the ins and outs of Internet use but who may still lack broadband access at home? David Sutphen, the co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, says that wireless devices may hold the key to getting them online. After all, he says, most young people own cell phones and the advent of smartphones has made it possible for them to access the Web over a mobile device instead of over a personal computer. In other words, access to the Web over the iPhone can act as a gateway to help them understand the importance of broadband adoption as a whole. In particular, he thinks that the rise of 4G technologies such as WiMAX and LTE will really help mobile users understand what broadband is capable of achieving.

"In a year and a half from now when networks switch over to 4G, you could do almost anything you want whether it's ordering groceries, paying parking tickets or applying for jobs online," he says. "WiMAX and LTE are going to be huge in this regard."

But even with faster wireless connection speeds, Rourke cautions that a smartphone is still no substitute for a traditional computer, especially when it comes to applying for jobs. After all, creating, editing and sending off a résumé on a mobile phone is much more difficult right now than it is on a personal computer.

"I personally don't think the cell phone in its current form is a useful tool for what we want to do," Rourke says. "You can't really edit a document on a cell phone."

Even so, the FCC in its broadband plan has recommended examining whether mobile broadband could serve as a useful way to bring more people aboard the broadband bandwagon, especially minority groups that are "relatively heavier users of mobile Internet." The FCC also cites research showing that accessing the Web over mobile phones often serves as a supplementary connection rather than an outright substitute for a fixed Internet connection.

And besides, Horrigan notes, increased speeds of any sort, be they over mobile or wired connections, are likely to increase adoption among non-users.

"The broadband plan sets the goal for higher network speeds and that is important in the context of adoption," he says. "If you're trying to get someone hooked on technology, they giving them truly high-speed access so they can use the latest and niftiest apps will go a long way toward showing them the value of broadband."

Read more about lans and wans in Network World's LANs & WANs section.

This story, "Who else wants national broadband?" was originally published by Network World.

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