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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at Broadband Summit of the Federal-State Joint Conference

February 07, 2013

Keynote Address by Lawrence E. Strickling

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information

at the

2013 Broadband Summit of the Federal-State Joint Conference

on Advanced Services

“Broadband Adoption and Usage – What Have We Learned?”

Washington, DC

February 7, 2013

 

I want to thank Chairman Genachowski for his kind introduction and Commissioners Clyburn, Landis and Why for the invitation to speak at this broadband summit hosted by the Federal-State Joint Conference on Advanced Services.

How many of you here today remember when the Federal Communications Commission created the Federal-State Joint Conference?  I remember, because it was created here in the fall of 1999 when I was the chief of what was then called the Common Carrier Bureau of the FCC.  I went back yesterday and looked at the Commission order that created the Joint Conference.  It is instructive in terms of showing how the issues of broadband access and adoption have changed in the last 13 years.  The focus in 1999 was exclusively on how to get advanced service (which was what we called broadband services back then) deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.  The key word was deploy.  It is used 25 times in a six-page document.  Interestingly, there was no thought of adoption back then.  The word is nowhere used in the order, except to note that the Commission adopted the order on October 8, 1999.

Today, as witnessed by the agenda of this conference, adoption has come to the forefront of the national discussion on broadband.  The communications industry has made great progress in the last decade to deploy broadband.  Today, based on data from the National Broadband Map, broadband speeds of at least 3 mbs are available from wireline providers to 98 percent of the population.  Advertised speeds of at least 6 mbs are available to 81 percent of the population through mobile wireless service.  Now, there’s more to be done and the Commission’s universal service reform efforts will help industry continue to expand broadband to homes and businesses in underserved areas of the nation.

With these advances in broadband deployment, we can focus on the gap in broadband adoption.  The last reported data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), based on the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 50,000 households in October 2010, indicated that more than 68 percent of households subscribed to broadband Internet access services.  That means over 30 million households have not adopted broadband at home.  This is a very troubling statistic in light of the importance of broadband access to our citizens and our economy.

One thing that is crystal clear is that broadband can be absolutely transformative to the way we live and work.  We hear stories every day of people using broadband to get training, get jobs and start businesses.  Folks use broadband to stay healthy, get educated and simply stay in touch with family and friends.  Broadband adoption is key to unlocking this transformation and it is our shared responsibility to advance and encourage adoption to give everyone a chance at the benefits this access will bring them.

Fortunately, many organizations and individuals have been responding to this challenge.  Here at the FCC, the creation of Connect2Compete and the work to reform the Lifeline program will have a significant impact on increasing broadband adoption.  Elsewhere in the Administration, the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, led by Susan Hildreth, has been working with state libraries across the country to deliver digital literacy training.  For millions of people, libraries are the only places they can go to learn about how to get online.  And we all owe thanks to those of you here today who work at other agencies and non-profit organizations where you are committed to bridging the broadband adoption gap in the United States.

At NTIA, we have been actively involved in working with organizations across the country on sustainable broadband adoption through the grant program we established with Recovery Act funds in 2009.  Most all of you know that NTIA has provided just under $4 billion in grant dollars to around 230 projects located all over the country.  Congress set aside $250 million specifically for broadband adoption projects, which are teaching digital literacy skills and providing job assistance to Americans who need this help in urban and rural areas throughout the country.  We awarded an additional $200 million in grants to develop or expand public computer centers in libraries, community centers, and housing developments and to provide training to empower those persons who do not have broadband access at home.  For just libraries, we awarded 19 grants totaling over $50 million.

These projects have been very successful.  Our grantees have delivered over 9.9 million hours of training to 2.8 million participants.  These efforts have generated more than half a million new broadband subscribers.  Our grantees have installed nearly 39,000 computer workstations in 2600 public computer centers located in 1500 communities.

Today is an opportune time to go behind these numbers and understand what has made these projects so successful.  Then we need to address how we take these teachings and apply them to design the new efforts that will be necessary to continue to close the adoption gap.

At the outset, we need to understand the reasons people do not subscribe to broadband services.  Fortunately, we have a lot of information on this issue.  The Pew Internet Project, and John Horrigan in particular, have contributed survey data on the barriers to adoption the last several years.  At NTIA, we have teams with the Census Bureau in large-scale surveys to look at these issues as well.  Our survey results indicate that the reasons consumers give most often for not subscribing is that they do not need broadband or are not interested in it.  Cost is the second most frequently given reason, followed by the lack of an adequate computer.

A key learning reported by our grantees is that we cannot solve the adoption gap by focusing on only one of the barriers.  A successful program must address all the major barriers in a comprehensive fashion.  Those programs that combine digital literacy training with a low-cost computer and discounted broadband service have reported that a substantial number of persons going through the program end up subscribing to broadband at home.

Being comprehensive also means focusing on all members of a household.  This has been especially true for grantees who are managing programs targeting students.  They have realized that they need to be educating the parents as well.  In California, one of our grantees, CFY, has been offering a program in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The CFY program focuses on high-poverty schools and offers Saturday workshops to teach students and their parents how to use the Internet and find online resources that promote learning in subjects such as math and reading.

One parent in the program, Zoila Perez, signed up for broadband after the family took part in this training through her daughter’s school.  Perez used to think the Internet was a dangerous place, but the CFY training at her daughter’s school helped her see the value of broadband, particularly for education.  She learned about a web site that CFY created with more than 1,600 proven educational resources called PowerMyLearning.org, and she acquired a computer for use at home. Now her daughter can go online anytime to research her homework, explore new ways to learn, and complete her school assignments. Perez, herself, began using the Internet to pay bills and find healthcare information. Even her four-year-old son is going online to practice his ABCs.  The CFY program in New York City and Los Angeles has helped nearly 16,000 families go online.

A second key learning is the importance of tailoring adoption programs to the specific needs of the community and the individual and providing a personal connection from the program to the people being trained.  The paths to adoption depend on demographics such as ethnicity, income and education level and on everyday realities such as work schedules and family obligations.  Forging personal connections with persons being trained means understanding how individuals will find the training relevant to them and ensuring that participants see concrete results from each training session. 

A good example of this learning is Axiom Technologies in Maine.  Axiom is using Recovery Act funds to increase broadband adoption by lobstermen and blueberry farmers in rural Maine.  Axiom designed its training to cater to their very unique needs – featuring rugged wireless devices to survive Maine’s harsh weather and apps tailored to the extensive state data collection and reporting requirements they have to follow. Axiom is also teaching the farmers and fishermen how to design websites, develop spreadsheets and use programs like Photoshop to advance their businesses.

Customized solutions offering early wins that demonstrate personal relevance, for example, learning how to skype on the first day of training, have the best chance of success.  Developing  effective, customized solutions requires leveraging the involvement of trusted partners  –the people and organizations in communities that know their neighborhoods and have their fingers on the pulse of their wants and needs.  These trusted partners can help test assumptions about target audiences, craft meaningful programs, and help provide the level of attention needed to get people to take the first step in the door and then stay engaged throughout the training.  Fortunately, through the Recovery Act funding and other programs, our grantees and their partners can provide this type of necessary support across the nation.

A third key learning is that we need to take advantage of the opportunity to provide digital literacy training to also focus on workforce training, particularly in areas of higher unemployment.  Many of our grantees have found a natural extension of the digital literacy training to also assist their populations to take advantage of the online environment to find jobs.  Both adoption projects and public computer center projects are reaching people who may never have even turned on a computer – a group that includes a disproportionate number of lower income Americans, senior citizens and members of minority groups – and teaching them how to navigate the Internet, set up an email account, write a resume, and even apply for jobs over the Internet.

These are skills that many of us take for granted. But for those stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, not having this basic digital literacy can be a significant barrier to employment. Many job listings are only posted online these days and many employers only accept job applications online.

Sheryl Culbert, a 49-year-old mother of two in Los Angeles, knows this first hand. After being released from prison in 2010, Culbert was determined to turn her life around. That meant finding a job. So she made her way to Chrysalis, a Los Angeles non-profit that helps the city’s homeless and low-income residents find work and get on a path to self-sufficiency.

Chrysalis enrolled Culbert in a Recovery Act-funded digital literacy program that taught her how to go online and set up an email account. For Culbert, who had lacked the confidence to use a computer, it was a major step. Chrysalis also helped her land a job with the Skid Row Housing Trust, an organization that operates housing for the homeless in Los Angeles.  Today, Culbert manages her own building for the Housing Trust. Her new job requires her to use a computer practically every day – to update rents in the system database, to email county housing officials, to make flyers for residents. She credits the training she received at Chrysalis for her success.

Chrysalis is one of 19 programs across California that received part of the $14 million Recovery Act investment in the California Emerging Technology Fund, a non-profit organization seeking to close the state's digital divide.  Through all of its programs, CETF has helped over 2,600 people find jobs.

Nearly four years after passage of the Recovery Act, the projects we funded in 2009 and 2010 are beginning to wrap up.  But the survey results show that there is a lot of work still to be done to increase the level of broadband adoption in our country.  It’s a daunting task we have before us.  How do we deliver adoption programs with tailored instruction and personalized attention to the 35-40 million households that do not subscribe to broadband today?

Here are some modest suggestions:

First, we must assemble the best practices and the documented successes from our projects and disseminate them as widely as possible.  To that end, we are about to release a Broadband Adoption Toolkit that harvests the innovations of our sustainable broadband adoption projects.  It lays out the steps for effective broadband adoption efforts and provides concrete, field-tested approaches to leaping the barriers to adoption – such as lack of skills, lack of understanding, and plain old fear.   Many of our grantees contributed their detailed and specialized knowledge about what works on the ground, and we will include information that covers outreach, awareness-building, training, curriculum, and making broadband affordable to low-income Americans.  The toolkit contains a wealth of information on good project ideas, incentivizing target audiences, and avoiding common pitfalls.  We will be making this toolkit available in the next month or so and encourage you to watch for its release.  Today I would like to acknowledge the leadership on this project supplied by our team at NTIA – Laura Breeden, Karen Hanson and Gwenn Weaver – as well as contributions from Angela Siefer and John Horrigan.

On the specific issue of the curriculum for training, our grantees have been experimenting with all manner of creative, innovative, and tailored programs to educate and train folks on how to use broadband. Working with nine other federal agencies, we built a portal, called digitalliteracy.gov, for sharing digital literacy curriculum and practical information about how to support new users of computers and broadband.  We have been assembling the materials from our grantees and have made these tools freely available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.  We hope that the combination of our toolkit along with the training programs available on this portal will enable any community or organization to develop and carry out its own adoption program anywhere in the country.

Other sources of important information and lessons learned are the state broadband offices we have funded in many states as part of the national broadband mapping initiative.  We need to find a way to collect and disseminate the knowledge they have amassed over the years.  And we also need to find funding to keep these offices in business after their Recovery Act grants end next year.

Second, we need to find ways that the comprehensive approach to eliminating barriers to adoption carries forward in future programs.  The FCC has recognized the importance of digital literacy training to adoption and has ensured that such training is included in a number of the Lifeline pilot projects it announced in December.  The Commission has raised the issue whether it has the legal authority to use universal service funds to support digital literacy and this will be an important question to resolve as the Commission completes its reform of the Lifeline program.  In addition to universal service funds, we must all endeavor to find other sources of funding for this indispensable training, whether it be from industry or the philanthropic community. Similarly, to the extent we have opportunities in the future to extend broadband infrastructure to schools or other community anchor institutions, we should make every effort to include community programs to increase broadband adoption in the local neighborhoods as a key component of such projects.

Third, we need to explore how to create a multiplier effect in adoption projects.  How do we build a culture where people getting trained feel an obligation to take that knowledge and help train their family members or their neighbors in the community?  An example of how to approach this challenge is the project by the Foundation for California Community Colleges. The foundation is distributing computers and providing training to mostly Latino students enrolled in math, engineering and science achievement programs at local community colleges.  What’s ingenious about this project is that all participating students are obligated to provide a minimum of twelve hours of computer training in their community.  Many train family members or friends who have been hesitant to learn how to use a computer or the Internet.  The familiarity and trust the students build with those they teach often leads them to go beyond the minimum training requirement and become community resources.

If we are going to reach the millions of non-adopting households with a personal, individualized touch, it is going to take lots of these sorts of creative force-multiplying ideas. The good news is that there are lots of very smart and dedicated people in this audience and at organizations across the country who are committed to shrinking the adoption gap.

We at NTIA look forward to working with all of you and serving as a catalyst for continued efforts to increase broadband adoption in America.

Thank you.