Community Communications Study

November 29, 2009

*THE FINAL REPORT IS NOW AVAILABLE: Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities *

Last February, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress told the Federal Communications Commission that they must deliver a comprehensive national broadband plan within a  year.   The act states, that the plan “shall seek to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal.”  The law states that the FCC must address many details in the broadband plan including affordability, consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes.

Through the Social Science Research Council, our team (Amelia Bryne, Dharma Dailey and Alison Powell) is one of a number of research teams that are seeking to nail down key details that the plan must address.  Specifically,  we’ve been asked to flesh out the barriers to getting broadband at home.   We know from the Pew Internet surveys and other research that many different kinds of people don’t currently have high-speed internet at home. We assume that at a minimum the broadband plan is going to address the question of availability.  That is, we suppose that the FCC plan will include a way to get broadband rolling down the street of every American household.  We’re looking at what other barriers to home adoption there might be.  Is it cost?  Is it hard to use?  Do people want it?

To investigate this we are going out into communities around the country asking people who don’t have high-speed internet at home to help us understand what it’s like not to have internet at home in 2009.   A phone survey can pinpoint what’s happening.  For example, the most recent Pew Internet survey showed that elders and low-income people have much lower rates of home adoption for broadband.  But getting out talking to people, doing site visits, home visits, user tests, and observation- these kinds of  on-the-ground research methods can help us understand why something’s happening.    Also we’re trying to find out how people are working around not having the internet.  How does a job seeker without internet at home find a job?  How does a single mom take an online class if she doesn’t have internet at home?   How does a sick person get health information without internet? We want to tease out of these whys and hows.   While we’re out there, we also want to better understand how non-users can be supported through the process of becoming a confident user.  What social infrastructure is in place to help them?  How well is it working?  So we’re talking to a lot of community communication intermediaries such as librarians, technology trainers, health workers, and others.

Historically, the FCC hasn’t had a strong research component.  It grew up in the days when mass communications meant only one phone company and three radio networks.  For the most part, they don’t have the budget or organizational structure to instigate research.  Sometimes, as in this case, Congress gives them a mandate and funding to do research.  Yet, in our more complicated communications landscape, research is likely more important than in days gone by.  In a recent workshop at the FCC on Civil Rights and Diversity re:Broadband, Jorge Reina Schement,  Dean of the School of Communication & Information, at Rutgers explained how today’s communications landscape demands more proactive research on the part of government.

Schement believes the the 20th century was the era of aggregation of audiences, but the 21st century is the era of disaggregation of audiences.   The way that consumers are divided by different kinds of technologies and different media makes it more challenging for policy makers to predict unintended consequences of policy changes in the communications arena.  DTV is one example of that.  We saw recently how the FCC and NTIA had to scramble to mitigate the impact of the DTV transition on people who rely on over the air TV broadcasts.  Eventually Congress had to delay the date for the transition.  This is because policy makers have little direct experience these days with people who rely on over the air broadcasts.  It’s probably easier for the FCC to proactively get out in the field to understand more about how communications policy changes may affect different kinds of consumers than it is for those consumers to learn the somewhat arcane and unintuitive ways of the FCC.   Building up a body of knowledge about particular demographics can greatly reduce the unintended consequences of policy decisions.  We hope that the evidence-based approach to policy making that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act kick-started continues.

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Infrastructure, Media, Policy, Social Impact