The National Broadband Plan (the "Plan") proposes to increase overall adoption levels from 65 percent to 90 percent over the next 10 years by focusing in on removing barriers to adoption affecting the 35 percent (representing 80 million adults) of non-adopters who are more likely than not to be: low income, African American or Hispanic, senior citizens, from a rural household, or disabled. The primary barriers to adoption experienced by these citizens are: 1) cost/affordability, 2) digital literacy, and 3) relevance, with issues for people with disabilities cutting across and beyond all three barriers. In addition to making recommendations as to how to overcome the top three barriers to adoption, the Plan also addresses measurement, best practices, and coordination of Tribal, state, and local initiatives, all in an effort to increase broadband adoption.

Background

The Federal Communications Commission's comprehensive Broadband Consumer Survey (FCC Survey) on broadband adoption concluded that fully one-third of all Americans—representing approximately 80 million people—do not use, i.e., have not “adopted” broadband. The FCC Survey, unique in that it is one of the first adoption surveys to oversample non-adopters, found that the key barriers to adoption and utilization include the cost of computers or connections, lack of online skills, and lack of understanding about the relevance of broadband applications (with independent and cross-cutting issues for people with disabilities).

Previous federal efforts to support Internet adoption include the Rural Utilities Service’s “Community Connect” program, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Technology Opportunity Program (TOP), both of which were part of broader programs. The Recovery Act in addition to funding deployment, represented the first large-scale federal broadband adoption effort, setting aside a minimum of $450 million of NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) funds for “sustainable broadband adoption” and “public computing centers.”

Analysis

It was not surprising that the Plan focused on the fact that non-adoption statistics ran “on socio-economic and racial and ethnic lines” because of the number of other reports (cited in endnotes to Ch. 9 of the Plan) that previously had identified these as key non-adoption factors.

Concluding that, without some kind of government action, citizens from these segments are likely to be “left behind” in terms of home broadband adoption and use, and deeming these statistics to be unacceptable, the Plan identifies the top three barriers to adoption and utilization as being: 1) cost, 2) digital literacy, and 3) relevance. The Plan proposes a series of recommendations designed to eliminate the three main barriers, to address the specific concerns affecting persons with disabilities, and to take several other initiatives designed to increase adoption and utilization

Key recommendations for adoption

The recommendations require actions by the FCC, Congress and other branches of government, and the private and non-profit sectors as follows:

  • Address cost barriers
  • The Plan proposes to make broadband more affordable for low income people using the Lifeline/Link-Up funds available under the Universal Service Fund (USF).
  • Only 40 percent of Americans with household incomes of less than $20,000 have broadband in their home, in contrast to the 93 percent of Americans with household incomes greater than $75,000 that do have broadband in their home. The Plan proposes to expand the Lifeline and Link-Up assistance programs which were established in the 1980s to ensure that low-income Americans could afford local telephone service, to cover broadband. Lifeline lowers the costs of monthly service for eligible consumers by providing direct subsidies, while Link-Up provides a one-time discount on the initial installation fee for telephone service (with enhanced support for Tribal lands).
  • The Plan proposes that the FCC should require eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) to allow Lifeline customers to apply Lifeline discounts to any service or package that includes basic voice service, data service as well as broadband.
  • The Plan further proposes that the FCC should integrate the expanded Lifeline and Link-Up programs with other state and local e-government consumer outreach efforts, such as having state social service agencies become more actively involved by, for example, assisting eligible end-users with Lifeline and Link-Up applications, and coordinating with other low-income support programs to streamline enrollment (such as the successful automatic enrollment process used in Florida).
  • The low-income consumer should be able to apply the Lifeline/Link-Up subsidy to any eligible broadband provider of choice—be it wired, wireless, fixed, mobile, terrestrial or satellite.
  • The Plan recommends that the FCC begin the expansion of the Lifeline program to broadband through the use of “pilot programs” to determine how best to increase adoption among low income consumers (e.g., using different levels of subsidy vs. minimum payment requirements, using subsidies for installations equivalent to the Link-Up model, using subsidies for equipment such as aircards, modems, and computers, providing refurbished computers and digital literacy courses when a consumer signs up for a subsidy, etc.). Similar pilot programs should be used to consider the unique needs of residents on Tribal lands. The pilots should be conducted through a competitive process designed to encourage providers to test alternative pricing and marketing strategies targeted toward increasing adoption in low income communities.
  • The Commission should consider use of spectrum for a free or very low-cost wireless broadband service
  • Separate from USF funds, the Plan recommends that the FCC look to identify spectrum to license for “free” (i.e., advertising-supported) or low-cost broadband service similar to the model used for over-the-air television broadband service. The spectrum would be reallocated from existing spectrum over the next 10 years. However, the Plan says the FCC should exercise caution, taking into consideration the benefits, as well as the costs, of such a model (i.e., reduction of the U.S. contributions needed to support a Lifeline broadband service resulting from lower auction revenues for the spectrum as a result of conditions placed on the spectrum).
  • Address digital literacy barriers
  •  Digital literacy involves educating and training consumers on how to use the Internet and computers. The plan recommends that the federal government should launch a National Digital Literacy Program that:
    • Creates a “Digital Literacy Corps to conduct skills training and outreach in communities with low rates of adoption, while building workforce skills for Corps members
    • Increases the capacity and knowledge in libraries and community centers to provide digital literacy training
    • Creates an “Online Digital Literacy Portal,” containing free, age-appropriate lessons from the technology and education sectors that users can access and use at their own pace
  • Address relevance barriers

Eliminating relevance barriers involves educating consumers on the relevance of broadband to their lives. In this regard, the Plan recommends:

  • Public funding for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to explore public-private partnerships to improve broadband adoption
  • Public and private partners engage in targeted efforts to increase the relevance of broadband for older Americans
  • The federal government “meet people where they are” by exploring the potential of mobile broadband access as a gateway to inclusion of non-adopters
  • The creation of private-sector and nonprofit partnerships in national outreach and awareness campaigns

In addition, the Plan contains extensive recommendations to promote broadband access by persons with disabilities (for more on this, see our separate advisory "Focus on Broadband Access for Persons with Disabilities"), and for improving broadband access on Tribal Lands (see our separate advisory, "Focus on Broadband Availability in Tribal Communities").

The FCC will be releasing a series of notices to launch each of its future proceedings. Davis Wright Tremaine will be participating in those proceedings on behalf of our clients.