The overlooked underserved: reversing the trend

by David Sutphen, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance

The Federal Communications Commission recently held a field hearing to further explore broadband adoption issues, specifically among members of rural and minority communities. The official hearing took place in Charleston, S.C., but a less formal "roundtable" discussion was held the previous night in the small town of Ravanel, S.C., population of about 1,300. 

I make a distinction between the two events, because the challenges to broadband adoption and deployment for each town are different, though the bottom line is the same: people who want and should have broadband access do not.

In the rural setting of Ravanel, the principal issue is one of population density. In small towns the cost of bringing a fiber optic line is prohibitive for the municipality not to mention for homes that are typically spread far apart.  

A fire chief in Ravanel said he only knew about the meeting because he read about it on his Blackberry. His fire station--what would be considered an anchor institution--has no wired broadband. At the roundtable, a small businessman shared that he had missed out on two orders that same day because he has only dial-up service and must go out of his way to go online.

Many residents in these small towns never reach the "adoption" question because getting broadband "access" to their homes is not an option. Residents of the rural South face yet another barrier, this time in common with their urban counterparts: affordability. An additional $40 to $70 a month to have broadband in the home is too much on some family budgets.

In urban areas, accessibility and affordability take a back seat to a host of other issues. Almost every neighborhood in a city like Charleston is wired for cable, and every neighborhood has wireline phone capability. However, there are other hurdles to adoption for potential urban broadband users, specifically related to language, age and race.

One participant spoke about the need to have content on the Web that is relevant to communities in which English is not the primary language. Having only Spanish versions of Anglo websites, he said, isn't the same as having a website in Spanish that is also culturally appropriate, serving the unique needs of the Hispanic community.

Moreover, many elderly Americans have never used a computer and are unaware of the advantages of broadband. A representative of an agency that serves older Americans explained the value of children being able to monitor their elderly parents' condition by actually seeing how they look using a webcam as they chat.

The disparity in broadband adoption rates between caucasians and people of color is well-documented. A panelist at the FCC hearing tagged adoption at about 60 percent for the general population, but only 43 percent for minorities. That 20 percent delta is a wide gap--too wide--aptly recognized by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps as the "digital divide."

None of the challenges presented in rural or urban America are unconquerable. Many will take time, money and understanding before 100 percent of all Americans enjoy the benefits of broadband. 

Already, wireless Internet is helping to bridge the gaps in availability and adoption in communities of color. For example, mobile broadband use among African-Americans jumped 141 percent from 2007 to 2009, and 47 percent of English-speaking Hispanics have now accessed the Internet on a mobile device.

And as the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Internet is working: in about one decade our nation has gone from nearly no broadband deployment or adoption to roughly 95 percent availability and 50 percent adoption. We'll be on the right track to meeting the needs of those who are unserved and underserved as long as the government keeps policies in place that encourage private sector investment and help those offline understand the life-changing benefits of joining a connected world. 

David Sutphen joined the Internet Innovation Alliance in October 2009. Currently a partner at Brunswick Group LLC, a strategic communications firm, Sutphen has held significant leadership positions in Congress, the entertainment industry and trade associations.