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Special Section in the International Journal of Communications on Meaningful Broadband Adoption

Since 2009, the federal government has funded 232 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) digital training and access projects nationwide. New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) is a partner on two of them, in Detroit and Philadelphia. As these programs draw to a close at the end of 2012, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are taking stock of the impact and outcomes of one of the largest and most comprehensive digital inclusion efforts ever undertaken.

 In mid-October the International Journal of Communications published a special section on broadband adoption, coedited by Greta Byrum, Senior Field Analyst, and Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. This collection of seven articles provides researchers, policymakers and practitioners new ways of thinking about measuring and evaluating broadband adoption.  

As Gangadharan and Byrum argue, increased rates of home broadband subscription do not serve as an adequate indicator of success for digital inclusion programs.  The articles offered in this special section advocate a shift from metrics based on numbers of future broadband consumers to indicators that are defined for and by the individuals and communities directly targeted by initiatives like the federally funded Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

Five of the articles focus on the United States, where FCC 2012 statistics estimate that over one third of the nation’s adults continue to experience limited or no access to a reliable Internet connection.  Meanwhile, the U.S. is home to many of the most globally successful web companies like Google and Facebook, and in recent years policymakers have been attempting to remedy this disconnection between innovation and equality by funding programs that encourage sustainable broadband adoption. 

From a consideration of mobile Internet access in Chicago, to the confusion among local institutions in rural Florida when local institutions were unsure of how to satisfy their funding requirements, this collection examines a range of issues at the heart of digital inclusion programs.

The affordability of home broadband service was not a major deterrent for inner-city residents surveyed in “Measuring Sustainable Broadband Adoption: An Innovative Approach to Understanding Broadband Adoption Use” by LaRose et al.   Rather research indicated that public education programs that allow people to practice skills and observe others are most likely to motivate broadband adoption.  Participants were also asked about their expectations from a broadband connection, pointing to faster music downloads and the ability to take online courses.  If policymakers and providers aim to make broadband relevant to new users, the authors suggest stronger ways to market the technology beyond price reduction.   

The article “Free Library Hot Spots: Supporting Broadband Adoption in Philadelphia’s Low Income Communities” by Colin Rhinesmith surveyed users and program assistants at digital learning centers across Philadelphia.  Focus groups were used in evaluating the success of the programs.  Social factors that promoted a sense of comfort (i.e., trust, safety, support, and respect), as well as the convenient location of the learning centers, proved to be central in easing new and under-served participants into meaningful broadband usage. 

As mobile Internet access increases, particularly within minority and low-income communities, some policymakers and journalists tout smartphone access as the solution to bridging the digital divide.  “Measuring Digital Citizenship: Mobile Access and Broadband” by Mossberger, Tolbert, and Hamilton examines what mobile Internet users in Chicago do online and compares how different neighborhoods access broadband.  Digital civic engagement—whether by reading news, finding information about local and federal programs, contacting politicians, or by connecting with constituents—is a policy goal in federal broadband adoption agendas.  The study reveals that mobile users and those who live in areas with low broadband subscription rates are statistically less likely to benefit from the Internet as site for meaningful political and civic interaction.

Location matters in and outside the United States.  The difference between connecting at home, work or in a public space had major technical implications for users surveyed in “The Bandwidth Divide: Broadband Adoption in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa”.  Pejovic et al. show that with wireless Internet usage in three rural villages in southern Africa, the question of broadband is more complex than one of increasing access.  A broadband connection that is not strong enough to support uploading, for instance, discourages the production of digital content, a crucial aspect of cultural preservation and exchange.

 “Toward an Inclusive Measure of Broadband Adoption” by Davidson, Santorelli, and Kamber suggest that accounting for the value of broadband in various communities will help to craft realistic policy goals.  For instance, while social networks are a high priority for most new broadband users, senior citizens might place a greater value on receiving medical information online than young adults in low-income areas who are more likely to value broadband service as an essential resource for discovering new employment opportunities.  

What happens when national policies do not consider local constraints?  One outcome, as evidenced in rural Florida community anchor institutions, is confusion amongst those tasked with the implementation and measurement of national broadband programs.  “Practical Approaches and Proposed Strategies for Measuring Selected Aspects of Community-Based Broadband Deployment and Use” recommends that sustainable broadband adoption plans would be more successful if local contexts were recognized.  Carmichael, McClure, Mandel, and Mardis propose a new metric, the Broadband Readiness Index, which assess the preparedness of local institutions and existing resources that can be utilized in policy tailored to meet the specific needs of municipalities. 

This collection of articles illuminates the importance of conversation and collaboration between those who work in digital inclusion programs and the policymakers who are responsible for ensuring that funding is allocated to programs that prove to be working.  Broadband adoption is a complex process, and learning is often slow.  No clear roadmap is presented for moving forward.  Each underserved and unserved community is home to unique challenges that often require planning tailored to match the social context of those that digital inclusion policies aim to serve.   What is clear, however, is that future funding marked for broadband adoption initiatives should consider metrics that measure beyond an uptick in home subscription rates when deciding what successful broadband adoption looks like.