By Barry Umansky and Robert Yadon, the Digital Policy Institute
The Digital Policy Institute believes that advancing the interests of consumers should be a major, driving force in government policymaking processes aimed at broadband expansion and enhanced connectivity. Our 21st Century digital infrastructure can be the conduit for many consumer benefits. As part of our review of those many benefits we've developed a Top 10 list that federal and state officials should consider when making choices that can affect the availability and capacity of broadband. This list, of course, is only illustrative of broadband's importance to consumers; it is not comprehensive.
1. Financial Savings: Studies confirm that broadband provides substantial economic savings to consumers, as broadband facilitates expanded opportunities to work from home, engage in commerce and manage your business and personal finances. A study by Nicholas J. Delgado entitled "Real Cost of the Digital Divide" details how a family could save an average of $7,200 each year by using the sales information and coupons that are offered to online consumers. The savings areas include travel, housing, food, apparel, and many other even newspaper costs.
2. Entertainment Savings: The certainty of substantial entertainment savings is good news for every family considering bringing broadband into their home or to their smartphones. With access to online streaming of movies, sporting events, plays, musicals and television programs, consumers are able to reduce or eliminate cable TV/satellite TV fees, avoid travel expenses to movie theaters and other entertainment venues. The wonders of microwave popcorn at one-tenth the cost of theater popcorn can't be ignored. Similarly, the easier access to--and reduced cost of--an e-book can be a significant benefit to the casual reader or the most rabid bibliophile.
3. Increased Productivity: Businesses using broadband can see increased productivity. In fact, the U.S. received the best ranking globally on the 2009 Connectivity Scorecard. Increased competiveness is tied directly to these firms expanding their use of broadband. Companies have the clear incentive to use broadband and best realize broadband's potential to stimulate productivity and economic growth.
4. Educational Benefits: With the advent of a faster and more robust internet, distance education has become more readily available, as is the ability of traditional education organizations to offer "hybrid" education--with face-to-face teaching supplemented by video/text/audio materials to help breathe additional life into education efforts. Citizens limited in terms of geography (those in rural areas) and economic capacity (those without the financial means to pay for traditional higher education) are able to benefit from contemporary and specialized educational opportunities through broadband connectivity.
5. Voice Communication: Broadband allows you to access the internet without simultaneously tying up your ability to make a phone call. Further, with broadband-based services like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), phone calls can be made at reduced costs without a sacrifice in reliability or clarity.
6. Societal Participation: Broadband Internet allows citizens to be more active in society. They can take advantage of broadband-based tools connecting them to government services, banking, and community organizations. Now more than ever, websites are using graphics, video, and audio clips that are more difficult for consumers to access, read, view and enjoy without the use of broadband.
7. Informed Electorate: Studies indicate that those who use the Internet on a regular basis have a greater understanding of what's happening in their communities, states and country. Citizens are able to access not just a small number of mass media outlets but may survey the entire range of opinions and perspectives available over the Internet. In an era where some traditional media are in decline--in terms of consumer reach and economic capacity--consumers, new media and even traditional media look to broadband communication to link content with consumers. Political candidates, parties and polling organizations also are taking full advantage of broadband in their connection with citizens, particularly in an election year.
8. Healthcare Access: A paperless, more cost effective healthcare system has become possible with the advent of broadband. Patient files can be shared among medical practitioners with reduced potential for error and patient jeopardy. Medical billing can now be done electronically, resulting in reduced costs for consumers and greater accuracy. Further, remote medical diagnostics and monitoring can be carried out by medical professionals, thus allowing patients greater access to comprehensive health care no matter where they are.
9. Public and Emergency Services: Faster connection speeds allow police officers, fire departments and other emergency services around the U.S. to do their jobs better. Personnel and equipment can be dispatched more effectively, with critically relevant information sent rapidly, accurately and uniformly to such personnel broadband communications also has fostered the creation of safety/enforcement systems such as 3D imaging for crime scenes. The cost savings and greater communications efficiency stemming from broadband connectively can free up police, fire and other emergency service personnel for work on the street, rather than with piles of paperwork at the office.
10. Environmental Protection: Broadband connectivity is one of the keys to enhancing our environment and reducing the carbon footprint of consumers and business. "Getting there" via the web rather than a car saves untold gallons of gas and reduces auto emissions at the same time. The future "smart grid" connecting alternative and other traditional electric generating facilities to consumers will depend on broadband to make the system work. Wherever internet protocol system can be used to make our consumption of energy more efficient, it is and will be broadband connectivity upon which these systems rely.
Barry Umansky, J.D., and Robert Yadon, Ph.D. are affiliated with The Digital Policy Institute, an independent, interdisciplinary research and policy development organization located at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The DPI has served as a catalyst for research and education on digital media issues since 2004. Additionally, the DPI is a member of the Consumer Advisory Committee at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).