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Remarks by Assistant Secretary Strickling at NTCA's Broadband Adoption Summit

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications Cooperative Association's Broadband Adoption Summit
Washington, D.C.
April 06, 2011

 - As Prepared for Delivery -

Thank you, Shirley for the kind introduction.  It is great to be here this morning to speak with all of you.

One of the priorities of the Obama Administration is expanding affordable access to and adoption of high-speed Internet in America. This is a key element of the President's strategy to build the innovation economy of the future -- one that supports new and better jobs, and enhances America's global competitiveness.

Our emphasis on broadband stems from the fact that it is a vital link to providing opportunities to our citizens to participate more fully in the global economy.  When you don't have regular access to high-speed Internet, you don't have access to all the educational and employment opportunities it provides. To locate and apply for jobs, you increasingly have to be online. And to land that good job, there is a strong chance you will need computer skills. 

NTIA plays a lead role in the Administration’s broadband agenda. From the National Broadband Map, to our broadband stimulus projects nationwide, to our research on broadband adoption, our efforts in this area are key to expanding access and adoption throughout the Nation. This morning I will highlight NTIA’s broadband efforts and some of our findings for you to consider as you collaborate today and discuss best practices for spurring broadband adoption.
  
To shine a light on the broadband gap, let’s first take a look at where broadband is available and where it is not.

In February, NTIA released the National Broadband Map – the first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband Internet availability. Underlying the map is a database including more than 25 million searchable records – by far the most granular dataset of its kind.
  
The data tell us that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of Americans lack access to Internet service at speeds that support a basic set of today’s broadband-rich applications, determined by the FCC to be 4 Mbps actual speed downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.
  
The map also includes data about broadband connections at community anchor institutions, a point of emphasis in making our broadband stimulus grants.  A report by state education technology directors concluded that most schools need a connection of 50 to 100 Mbps per 1,000 students, but the data from the map show only one-third of surveyed schools subscribe to speeds faster than 25 Mbps. And, only four percent of libraries report subscribing to speeds greater than 25 Mbps. So although we are gratified that our broadband stimulus infrastructure projects will help meet the broadband needs of thousands of community anchor institutions, we know that many more anchor institutions remain thirsty for greater capacity and speed in order to better serve their communities.

The National Broadband Map is just one component of NTIA’s State Broadband Initiative.  In addition, we have provided grants to states and territories to support their efforts to identify and address obstacles to broadband deployment and adoption in their areas.  For example, our Florida grantee plans to provide technology planning and network assessments for public libraries, enabling them to provide faster and more reliable Internet service to the public. Our North Carolina grantee is collaborating with providers, universities and other stakeholders, to conduct a Lifeline research project and measure the effect that various levels of training and subsidies have on broadband adoption rates in the state. This will help provide needed data as the FCC considers amending the Lifeline program.

Closely tied to our work mapping broadband availability nationwide is our work studying broadband adoption in the U.S. This work effort includes surveying the population as to whether they subscribe or use broadband, understanding why people do not subscribe, and determining the most effective ways to overcome obstacles to subscribing.

In February, we released new data from the October 2010 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS). The Census Bureau collected data from 54,000 households and 129,000 persons – the largest sample size in relation to similar studies on adoption.
  
The report shows that home broadband adoption increased over the past year -- from 63.5 percent to 68.2 percent. This is a good result given overall economic conditions last year but it still leaves approximately one-third of Americans cut off from the digital economy.

I would also like to mention several other key takeaways from the report:

  • The most recent information shows a persistent – albeit narrowing— urban/rural broadband adoption gap, as only 60 percent of rural consumers subscribe compared to 70 percent of urban consumers. But this gap has narrowed to 10 percent of households from 12 percent in 2009.
  • There is a wide variation of adoption rates across the states. For example, the highest adoption rate is Utah at 80 percent and the lowest rate is Mississippi at 52 percent.
  • The broadband gap still persists by race and ethnicity. For example, the adoption level among Blacks is 50 percent and among Hispanics it is even lower at only 45 percent. However, the adoption level among Hispanics increased more than 5 percentage points in the last year.
  • Survey respondents gave several reasons for non-adoption. 46 percent say they don’t need broadband or are not interested in the service; 25 percent say it is too expensive; 14 percent do not have a computer; and 3 percent do not have broadband available to them.
  • Despite the growing importance of the Internet in American life, 28 percent of all persons do not use the Internet in any location, although that figure is down from nearly 32 percent last year.

Americans who did not use broadband at all – whether inside or outside the home – most commonly cited lack of interest or need as the primary reason. In contrast, those who lacked broadband at home but who did use it elsewhere most commonly cited affordability as the reason they were not subscribers.

The report underscores that there is no simple “one size fits all” solution to closing the digital divide.  A combination of approaches makes sense, including targeted outreach programs to minorities, people with disabilities, and rural populations emphasizing the benefits of broadband. 

This is exactly what many of our sustainable broadband adoption stimulus projects are doing. 

I know that most of you are familiar with the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Thanks to the Recovery Act, we are investing approximately $4 billion in approximately 230 strong, sustainable projects that will not only expand broadband access and adoption but will also lead to economic growth, greater innovation, and job creation.
   
We funded three types of projects: infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption projects.

Congress directed that we provide grants totaling at least $250 million for sustainable adoption projects. Our portfolio of projects will address barriers to adoption and provide broadband education, training, and equipment, particularly to population groups that traditionally underutilize broadband technology. These targeted broadband adoption efforts will encourage vulnerable populations to share in the benefits of broadband.

Let me give you some examples of the targeted approaches that our grantees are taking. These include providing multilingual training programs; training teenagers to refurbish computers that will be given to at-risk students and their families; and targeting training programs to local community resources – such as workforce centers, public housing sites, and senior centers.

In addition to targeting a range of populations that have been slow to adopt, some of our sustainable broadband adoption projects are emphasizing adoption at an institutional level. For example, one project is targeting rural medical providers to facilitate telehealth and another project is working to spur subscribership among organizations that serve people with disabilities.

Our sustainable adoption projects will give us a great opportunity to test what programs will best help to improve adoption among the various communities that have been slow to sign up for broadband service. 

Through these projects, we will have the opportunity to examine a large number of variables and how they impact an individual’s decision to subscribe to broadband services.

We will be able to examine factors such as how efforts to reduce cost to consumers, especially low income Americans, play a role in spurring sustainable adoption; how children can play a role in helping their parents and caregivers see the value of broadband; how training through in-home access compares to public training at a library or community center; or which approaches are most effective based on a particular population’s demographic makeup. For example, are non-English speakers likely to subscribe for the same reasons as older Americans?

Perhaps we will find that when users are provided with more culturally relevant content, they will be more likely to adopt, or that users will be more likely to adopt when they fully understand and see first-hand the importance of computer skills to improving employment opportunities.

In all cases, we will compare the results of these projects to see what we can learn about the effectiveness of various approaches, and how these effects vary depending on factors such as the audience, the intensity of the program, and the complexity of the approach – whether they address several variables like combining increased access with job-skills training, or focus on particular age groups or “vulnerable populations” such as people with disabilities.

While we have high hopes that these projects will provide valuable information for future policymaking, I’m also pleased that many of these projects are already up and running and creating new opportunities to serve their communities.

For example, just last week Byte Back, a partner organization with our Washington, D.C. sustainable broadband adoption grant, held a graduation ceremony for adults who completed computer and job-skills training courses.  One of the graduating students was a senior citizen who came to the program when her computer broke. She enjoyed the courses so much that she is now a volunteer with the program, helping to teach other seniors valuable computer skills.

Nearly 80 percent of that graduating class is unemployed, and forty percent of that class is currently in transitional housing.  But now, armed with new skills, there is more hope for these students than ever.  According to Byte Back, every $100 invested in training unemployed students results in a $1082 increase in student earnings, and half of the program’s unemployed job training graduates found employment last year. We are glad that our grant will make it possible for more adults to receive job and computer skills training with Byte Back. We hope to see this type of success with all our adoption projects – and to replicate this success so that all Americans have access to the job opportunities and improved quality of life that broadband can provide.

Another example of the transformative power of broadband can be seen in our One Economy project that is implementing a comprehensive program of computer training, wireless Internet access, broadband awareness outreach, and online content and applications to residents of 159 affordable and public housing developments and low-income communities across the country. Through the One Economy project, a mother living in public housing in East Los Angeles, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and coping with reduced mobility, connected to the Internet and is now able to keep in touch with friends and family and even complete cognitive therapy online. The benefits of broadband extended to her son, who used the Internet to apply to 11 universities this past fall.

These projects are providing an unprecedented large-scale opportunity to see what types of programs can move the needle on subscribership.  A key challenge for NTIA will be to assimilate information and best practices from our grantees and make them broadly available. 

Knowing that these projects can pave the way for future broadband efforts, NTIA awarded a contract to ASR Analytics to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the economic and social benefits of our projects.  This evaluation study will include detailed case studies of a combined 15 public computer center and sustainable broadband adoption projects.

The results of the evaluation will help inform the government on the return on investment from our grants, as well as identify factors influencing performance and impact that can be used to inform future private or public sector investments. It is my hope that as success stories pile up, we will have a growing dialogue in our local communities and states that can lead to effective partnerships and successful practices, even without additional federal grant money. 

There’s still much to do, and we will continue to make broadband-related issues a top priority for the foreseeable future. We look forward to the dialogue, and I wish for all of you a productive and thought-provoking day of discussion. Thank you again for your time.