Last week, the Federal Communications Bar Association hosted a continuing education course on “Developments in the Effort to Improve Broadband Adoption” in Washington, DC. ALA OITP presented as part of the panel on “Understanding Current Adoption Efforts,” along with representatives from Comcast, CenturyLink and One Economy.
The evening opened with Josh Gottheimer, Senior Counselor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in conversation with Barry Ohlson, vice president of regulatory affairs at Cox Enterprises. There was “no contest” to Gottheimer’s position that broadband deployment and adoption are critical for global competitiveness and employment opportunities. He noted that there are three barriers to improving broadband adoption: i) the high price of broadband service and equipment, ii) the perceived lack of relevance, and iii) the lack of digital literacy skills. I was a little worried he was going to steal my best lines, though, as he quoted data from ALA and the University of Maryland about digital literacy training in libraries, and noted America’s libraries are vital players in helping ensure no one is left behind in the digital age. He also observed there is no “silver bullet” to immediately closing the digital skills gap, so a range of initiatives is needed to aggressively address the concern. Included in the arsenal are provider efforts like Comcast Internet Essentials and CenturyLink’s Internet Basics, both resulting from voluntary merger commitments; the recently announced Connect to Compete initiative; and the current Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the formation of a digital literacy corps through libraries and schools.
Being a non-lawyer, I was particularly interested in the panel on “The Legal Options for Addressing the Adoption Problem.” Here panelists discussed possible ways the FCC could tackle broadband adoption within statutory boundaries and forestall or defeat a potential court challenge. Panelists discussed the merits of Sections 254 and 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, as well as reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service, voluntary commitments as part of merger conditions, and use of the “bully pulpit” to spur action. While not on the panel, ALA consultant and Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition Director John Windhausen shared work he’d done with ALA supporting authority through Title I and Section 706 to expand Lifeline programs to support adoption and digital literacy training.
Anchoring the evening’s program, I submitted that libraries often are “silent partners” (ppt) in digital literacy efforts around the country. While there is growing awareness and recognition of library efforts at agencies like the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and FCC, funding and other support for libraries have not been commensurate with the increased demand libraries have been experiencing for technology resources, particularly since the economic downturn.
The audience responded well to my suggestion that libraries provide a great “triple play” in our communities: physical locations with technology infrastructure (including Internet accessible computers and wi-fi), assistance and training from information professionals, and robust and diverse electronic content. Aside from our own efforts, libraries are ideal partners for larger or national digital literacy and broadband awareness efforts – but this engagement should reflect real collaboration, rather than simply looking to libraries as a distribution point for promotional materials. One person in the audience, in fact, asked about “community champions” for adoption, and all of the panelists confirmed the importance of engaged and passionate stakeholders to achieve success.
I was struck over the evening by the amount of activity focused on broadband adoption in the past two years, which is exciting when I think about improving access to the world of resources available online. All of the recent initiatives seek to make a three-pronged attack on the barriers people face to broadband adoption – price, skills and relevancy. At the same time, a new report from Technet noted adoption has not changed significantly between 2009 and 2011 (up to 68 percent from 65 percent), so there is certainly more work to do. The report authors called for greater coordination and more clear strategies for assessing outcomes.
Along these lines, one difficult question for the panel was: How are we measuring success? Certainly, we hope to see improvement in digital literacy competencies and broadband adoption, but how are we tracking our progress? The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies is involved with several evaluation efforts, but I’d love to hear from libraries about the lessons you are learning. What do we know from our long engagement in this sphere and extended reach through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funding that can be applied to continuous improvement in our work to empower people to fully engage in the knowledge economy? We’d love to hear from our readers on this topic!
Director, Program on Networks