Helping Philadelphians Adopt Broadband

This is the third of four blog posts about the Freedom Rings Partnership in Philadelphia and its KEYSPOT program, funded by the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

While operating within the confines of the federal grant, the Philadelphia Freedom Rings Partnership worked to establish broadband adoption metrics that reflect the complexity of broadband adoption and broadband’s impacts.

In the early stages of the FRP, partners adopted the following expanded definition of adopter and subscriber: Broadband Adopter: a person who has increased their computer skills or gained new computer skills in order to obtain information they need, perform transactions, and communicate more effectively and thereby improve his/her quality of life. Broadband Subscriber: a person who obtains a 1) fully-paid, 2) subsidized or 3) free subscription to the Internet (for example becomes an Internet user of a library, computer center or other public access point for no cost) and uses a a) computer or b) handheld devices such as cell phones, smart phones, iPads, or netbooks for access to the Internet. A New Subscriber is someone who previously did not access the Internet in any of these ways prior to program participation.

Once the partnership agreed upon a robust definition of broadband adoption, OTI set out to understand better who these KEYSPOT users were in terms of their Internet use and the impact the KEYSPOTS had on their adoption.

Broadband Adopter Profile Costs of access As indicated by our survey data, approximately one third of KEYSPOT participants reported having Internet at home. Cost for hardware and connectivity served as a significant barrier to home broadband use for the remainder. Survey respondents cited lack of a computer (57 percent) and cost (30 percent) as the most common deterrents to home Internet access. Cost issues were evident among those respondents who selected “other” barriers (6 percent) in relation to home Internet subscription. Write-in answers revealed that homelessness or not having one’s own home was another key factor for lack of home Internet. No WUS respondents selected the option “It’s a waste of time” to explain lack of a home subscription.

Qualitative findings also confirmed cost barriers. In all interviews with staff at Managing Partners and across all three participant focus groups, cost was the primary reason cited by participants for failing to adopt broadband in the home. One focus group participant said: “I’m [on] a very strict budget and I thought to try it. But it’s kind of difficult.” Many participants struggled to meet basic needs. As a staff person of a Managing Partner described, “People are just surviving. They're not living. They're not existing. They're just surviving. If you're talking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs—food, clothing, shelter and water—it's not even met.”

Access alongside non-adoption Half of focus group participants who mentioned having home Internet or personal computers before frequenting a KEYSPOT admitted to not using these tools. Common among these participants was that a lack of digital literacy skills limited their use of the technology. They reported to have purchased subscriptions in the home for their children and grandchildren, not for themselves. As one participant said, “I just want to become computer-literate because every time I need something done, I need to go to my grandkids, or one of my children, to ask them to do things for me. They always say, ‘You need to learn computers, so you don't have to sit and wait for somebody to do something for you.’ ” In the same focus group, another participant said, “I also had mine years before, because whenever my children, or my grandchildren come over, they always bring their computers. So they need to be on the Internet.”

Fear and other challenges Many KEYSPOT training participants come with little or no knowledge about computers and the Internet. In two out of three focus groups with participants, first-time computer users expressed feeling extremely fearful of computers. Describing his initial experience with computers, a participant shared, “I used to shake when I first started... Man—it was rough.” Webguides regularly observed participants’ trepidation. As one Webguide said, many new users worry “that at the touch or click of a button something will blow up and explode. It’s just so much power in that one button.”

A handful of staff interviewees highlighted low literacy skills, or the inability to read, as a barrier to becoming digitally literate. One staff person noted, “We have such a high level of literacy issues in the city [and] how do you address that when you're also trying to address needs around digital capabilities?”

Internet is relevant A majority of focus group attendees stressed the critical need to learn or stay up-to-date with changing technology and the Internet. As one participant stated, “If you don’t know computers, you are lost.” Another participant added, “In today's society, you absolutely need a computer. That was one of the things I was trying to impress [on] new people where I lived, that our lives are just computer-oriented now, whether we like it or not.”

Others expressed the relevance of digital literacy in terms of self-sufficiency and fulfillment of personal goals. Focus group conversations revealed the importance of developing digital skills to avoid dependency on grandchildren or members of a younger generation for Internet-related communications and transactions. Another set of participants discussed reasons for enrollment in a training, including getting up to speed with secure online banking and improving technology skills in order to advance at work.

One indication of the importance of the Internet to KEYSPOT users was reflected in survey data. More than half of all respondents said that they go online everyday (55 percent); only 7 percent said that they never go online. Those who had Internet at home were much more likely to use Internet everyday (70 percent) compared to those who did not have it at home (47 percent). Of those who did not have Internet at home, nearly half of respondents nevertheless used the Internet everyday.

KEYSPOT IMPACTS Helpful KEYSPOT trainers In focus groups, participants repeatedly underscored the importance of a patient, knowledgeable, and fun trainer.

Supportive trainings All participants who had computers and Internet at home before attending a KEYSPOT acquired and improved their digital literacy skills to use technology for personal reasons. For example, one participant transformed from a non-user to a user with basic Internet and computer skills. Describing her path to using a personal computer, she said, “I got a 12-year-old grandson, and he’d be saying ‘Dang grandma, you bought a computer now, you don't know how to use it yet?’ So I decided that, I started making him sit on a computer and do work for me. Because he'd be like showing me, and then I get mixed up. So I said, 'Well, I'm going to take a class, and I'm going to surprise him.’ Well, I am surprising him. I'm not finished.”

Since the Evaluation FRP member Drexel University published its assessment of trainings and netbook distribution in collaboration with Philadelphia Housing Authority, new KEYSPOT sites have opened, and the city approved funding to support many KEYSPOT locations, validating the impact of the work. Drexel-FRP-Philadelphia Housing Authority Training Survey Report City Council Approves Nutter’s Budget: $624k to KEYSPOT Computing Centers


Kayshin Chan
Kistine Carolan
Darby Hickey

Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a program fellow at New America's Open Technology Institute (OTI) and an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.