Study: US broadband adoption levels off

The U.S. government and privacy businesses need to work together better to drive up adoption, a TechNet study suggests

Adoption of broadband service in the U.S. has levelled off since 2009, and the U.S. government and the tech and broadband industries will need to work more closely together to drive up subscriber numbers, according to a new study.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission found that 65 percent of U.S. residents had broadband at home in 2009, while the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration found 68 percent with broadband in late 2011, noted the study by TechNet, an advocacy group made up of technology CEOs.

More coordination of broadband initiatives is needed, said report author John Horrigan, TechNet's vice president of policy research and a long-time broadband researcher. The FCC has worked with cable broadband subscribers on Connect to Compete, a program targeting low-income U.S. residents launched in late 2011, but more effort is needed, he said.

Beyond that program, "there is not much in the way of sustained coordination or (to my knowledge) a mechanism for ongoing coordination between the government and private sector on broadband adoption challenges," he said in an email. "Such a mechanism would be helpful in my view."

Last week, Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, sent a letter asking about broadband adoption efforts to several broadband providers. Rockefeller asked the broadband providers to supply him with data about the reasons U.S. residents do not subscribe.

"As more and more business and personal interactions migrate from over the phone and in person to online, having access to high-speed services is more essential than ever before," he wrote in a letter to Comcast.

Comcast applauded Rockefeller's focus on broadband adoption, noting that more than 41,000 U.S. families have signed up for US$9.95 service since it launched its Internet Essentials service in mid-2011. "We're still seeing that education, digital literacy, and cultural issues need to be overcome, not just cost," Comcast said in a statement. "We're working on all of these areas, and are introducing program enhancements, including broadening eligibility for the program, making it easier to sign up, and doubling the speed of the service."

With broadband growth slowed significantly, the U.S. government and private groups should consider new programs to encourage adoption, said the TechNet report, released two years after the FCC unveiled a national broadband plan focused on bringing 100 Mbps broadband to a majority of U.S. residents.

The U.S. is risking "second-class status" for its broadband ecosystem unless it focuses more on adoption, Rey Ramsey, TechNet's president and CEO, said in a statement.

More needs to be done to tackle the problem of slow uptake by low-income and elderly people, Horrigan said. "Past research shows that people do not get broadband because of cost or lack of skills with computers or lack of awareness of what broadband offers them," he said.

As the FCC moves toward revamping its Lifeline and Link-up subsidy programs for low-income U.S. residents to afford telephone service, the agency should not only open those programs to broadband, but also include broadband training "to help people become sustainable adopters," Horrigan said.

The TechNet report also recommends that the FCC act on a recommendation in the national broadband plan to create a national broadband adoption clearinghouse, where groups and local government agencies could share expertise and tips on how to improve adoption. The FCC, NTIA and other agencies can also work more closely together on broadband adoption efforts, the report said.

In addition, the FCC and NTIA should develop tools to assess what broadband adoption programs are working well and which ones don't, the report said. This will help local adoption efforts with limited resources get the best results, the report said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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