BROADBAND ADOPTION AND YOUR CONSUMER [Rural Telecommunications]
(Rural Telecommunications Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Broadband usage represents more than a revenue stream for service providers. Social and political life, economic opportunity, and access to health care, education and government services have all become inextricably linked to broadband. That's why, ever since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, encouraging broadband adoption has been a national policy goal.
In the stimulus program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) reserved a portion of its $4 billion grant fund for programs that could be models for "sustainable adoption." And the national broadband plan, published in 2010, called for measures to ensure that all Americans could "reap the benefits of broadband."
Specifically, the plan called for addressing the issues of cost, digital literacy and relevance that keep Americans from using broadband services. One recommended measure was to extend two telephone-oriented Universal Service Fund programs, Lifeline and Link-Up, to support broadband connectivity for low-income customers.
As the national broadband plan was translated into specific policy initiatives, the FCC turned its attention to restructuring Lifeline. However, the agency found little reliable evidence about which changes might be most effective. To generate statistically valid data that could guide its decision, in December 2012, the FCC awarded $13.8 million to 14 pilot programs designed to promote low-income households' adoption and retention of broadband services. In addition to providing data, the projects themselves will deliver broadband to about 74,000 low-income consumers. Recipients include urban and rural wired and wireless broadband providers.
Broadband Changea Lives
Toledo Telephone Co. (Toledo, Wash.) used the NTIA adoption grant it received in 2010 to provide free training, equipment and broadband service to its telephone customers who hadn't yet subscribed to broadband. By the time the program ended, 87% of its telephone customers were using broadband (up from about 40%), and most program participants are now switching to paid services as their two years of free broadband come to an end.
Dale Merten, Toledo's chief operations officer, said the company's choice of partners was instrumental to the success of the program. The Cowlitz Tribe helped promote the program to its members, many of whom live in Toledo's service area, and the tribe also offered space for computer classes. Centralia Community College provided the digital literacy program that began with computer basics and went on to cover Microsoft Office, e-commerce and other skills participants wanted to learn.
Addressing the barriers of costs and skills was relatively simple, Merten said: "The toughest one was relevance." Toledo's most successful strategy for engaging participants proved to be knocking on doors and talking with customers, one at a time, about how the Internet could improve their lives. A favorable article in the local newspaper also helped generate excitement about the program. Sometimes, however, the pressure had to come from outside- for example, one elderly couple was unimpressed by the Internet until their great-grandchild was born and they discovered they could follow his progress on Facebook.
Merten said that when the adoption program began, "If I knew one person was able to ... get a degree or a job, that would make it a success for me." His wish was granted some months later when his marketing manager received a letter from a disabled worker who had taken advantage of the program to learn computer skills and voice-recognition software. The worker was now working his way toward a degree in applied science and a job in the energy industry.
Tesbing bhe Value of Training
Madison Communications (Staunton, 111.) is a participant in one of the new FCC pilot projects, along with six other Illinois téleos and Partnership for a Connected Illinois. The project will quantify the impact of digital literacy on broadband adoption and retention. In Madison's service area, low-income customers in one of five exchanges will receive broadband at a lower cost, free installation and intensive digital literacy training, while similar customers in the other four exchanges will receive only the lower cost and free installation.
The program officially launched April 1, and as of midApril the company was ramping up for the project and aligning the activities of its various partners. The Citizens Utility Board, an Illinois nonprofit that represents the interests of utility customers, will help with promotional announcements and posters. Madison and the other participating local exchange carriers will then send direct mailings to customers, verify their eligibility and provide them with vouchers to purchase refurbished computers for $50 from Computer Banc, an Illinois nonprofit that helps provide low-cost technology for classrooms. Connected Living, a national organization that specializes in technology adoption, will provide four hours of basic computer training for customers in the "digital literacy" study group. Connected Living also will provide ongoing support for those who need it.
Even before the full marketing effort launched, inquiries about the program began to pour in, and Kim Harber, Madison's senior vice president, said he is excited and optimistic about the project. However, Harber said, the question, "How do I incorporate broadband into my life at work, at home, in the education of youth?" is still unan- swered. The company plans to work closely with the local hospital schools and economic development organizations to make sure that those who adopt broadband actually benefit from it and that the FCC's vision of broadband as an economic engine for rural America becomes a reality.
A Homegnouin Rdopbion Program
Many téleos are trying to address obstacles to broadband adoption without help from federal grant programs. For example, Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (WCVT; Waitsfield, Vt.) has an inexpensive "broadband lite" offering targeted to lower-income customers, and the telco provides education to all its customers.
By converting its email system to the Google platform, WCVT has been able to offer customers the full suite of Google's cloud-based services, which increases the value of broadband for them. In connection with the Google conversion, the company offered 40 educational sessions that more than 600 of its customers attended, either in person or online. WCVT has partnered with the local chamber of commerce to offer training for small-business users. Libraries and town recreation departments also host training classes for residents and help promote them.
Kurt Gruendling, vice president of marketing and business development for WCVT, said age can be a major barrier to broadband adoption, but that seniors' children and grandchildren often encourage and help them to keep their families in closer touch through social media and video chat. In addition, Gruendling pointed out, new, inexpensive, easy-to-use devices such as tablet computers make the Internet less intimidating for many, including seniors, who were once reluctant to try it.
Qualiby Versus Price
Not everyone agrees that broadband adoption programs are the best way to increase broadband adoption. Derrick Bulawa, chief executive officer/general manager of BEK Communications Cooperative (Steele, N.D.), offered a contrarian view: "If you invest in relevance, the price of Internet service is irrelevant." For Bulawa, high quality is what makes Internet service relevant.
A recent broadband stimulus award allowed BEK to build out fiber to the home (FTTH) in a nearby underserved area. The speed BEK offered-20 Mbps to 100 Mbps-and the reliability of the system were enough to attract subscribers. Without any specific "adoption program," BEK quickly sold broadband services to about 87% of potential customers in that competitive area, even though it was largely rural and low-income. (BEK's total penetration rate for all services is 92%. )
Bulawa said of his FTTH offering, "It's work-quality Internet service. If they wanted to work from home or run a small business, it was something they could rely on. People understood the notion that this was going to work."
Working from home wasn't the only "relevant" application. Bulawa told the story of an elderly customer who swore he would never buy Internet service even if BEK were selling it for $5 a month. As far as he was concerned, the Internet was only a gateway to all kinds of depravity. Bulawa said, "Suddenly, when the hospital came up with a workstation that would let him transmit his vital signs-blood pressure, glucose and so forth- instead of driving 100 miles every two weeks, it became relevant for him, and he bought Internet service.
"The hospital requires high-quality broadband to make this service happen," concluded Bulawa, offering one more way broadband changes and improves life in rural America.·
[A Toledo Telephone] marketing manager received a letter from a disabled worker who had taken advantage of the program to learn computer skills and voice-recognition software. The worker was now working his way toward a degree in applied science and a job in the energy industry.
Masha Zager is a freelance writer. She can be reached at mashazager(a bridgewri ter. com.
(c) 2013 National Telephone Cooperative
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