At the same time as the government pushes forward with the National Broadband Plan to provide high speed access to greater numbers of Americans, new research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that broadband adoption has dramatically slowed in 2010.
What’s driving this paradox?
The 6 primary goals of the Broadband plan are critical to the future economic success of the country. Of these, 3 relate directly to aspects of consumer access:
- Goal No. 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
- Goal No. 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
- Goal No. 4: Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government buildings.
Compare the government’s goals to key consumer findings from PEW’s Home Broadband 2010 research:
- Two-thirds of American adults (66%) currently use a high-speed internet connection at home, a figure that is not statistically different from what the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found at a similar point in 2009, when 63% of Americans were broadband adopters. (African-Americans are the anomaly with a 22% increase year-over year)
- Consumers fail to see the lack of broadband as major disadvantage:
- Job opportunities and career skills: Only 43% of Americans believe that lack of broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to finding out about job opportunities or gaining new career skills. Some 23% think lack of access is a “minor disadvantage” and a significant 28% think it is “not a disadvantage.”
- Health information: Just over a third (34%) of Americans believe that lack of broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to getting health information. Some 28% think lack of access is a “minor disadvantage” and 35% think it is “not a disadvantage.”
- Learning new things to improve and enrich life: Less than a third (31%) of Americans believe that lack of broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to learning new things that might enrich or improve their lives. Some 31% think lack of access is a “minor disadvantage” and 32% think it is “not a disadvantage.”
- Government services: Only 29% of Americans believe that lack of broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to using government services. Some 27% think lack of access is a “minor disadvantage” 37% think it is “not a disadvantage.”
- Keeping up with news and information: Under a quarter (23%) of Americans believe that lack of broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to keeping up with news and information. Some 27% think lack of access is a “minor disadvantage” and nearly half (47%) think it is “not a disadvantage.”
- Keeping up with what is happening in their communities: Less than a fifth (19%) of Americans believe that lack of broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to finding out about their local community. Some 32% think lack of access is a “minor disadvantage” and nearly half (45%) think it is “not a disadvantage.”
- The research also found that 21% of US adults do not use the internet, although one-third of those still have some connection to the web either through family members with access or having used the internet in the past.
Access is not synonymous to adoption
In addition to PEW’s findings that consumers largely fail to see a major disadvantage to foregoing broadband access, two other pieces of research shed light on consumer’s attitudes towards broadband adoption.
The FCC conducted the Broadband Adoption and Use in America survey in late fall of 2009 and found that concern over the lack of safety online is so high among consumers who do not use the internet, that it is a barrier to adoption for 47% of non-adopters who worry “about all the bad things that can happen on the internet”. 65% of non-adopters strongly agreed that there is too much pornography and offensive material on the internet. 57% of non-adopters strongly agreed that it too easy for their personal information to be stolen online. And nearly half (46%) of non-adopters strongly agreed that the internet is too dangerous for children.
Underscoring the concern over personal safety and privacy on the internet among US consumers, a March, 2010 Financial Times/Harris Poll, found that 81% of Americans are concerned about the amount and security of personal online data that can be accessed by cybercriminals and hackers. 62% say social sites like Facebook and Twitter make many people vulnerable to cyber attacks. 61% of Americans are concerned about the amount and security of personal online data that can be accessed by search engines.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
As these three research studies so clearly outline, providing broadband access alone isn’t enough to compel consumers to adopt the technology. Far too many consumers fail to see the relevance of the technology in their lives, and/or are afraid of the risks technology can introduce to themselves or their families.
To drive adoption, focus must be placed on three additional fronts: education, infrastructure and enforcement.
Education: Service providers should be encouraged to provide site specific, easily discoverable about the benefits of internet access and clear safety information. This information should be provided in Spanish as well as English on the ISP’s websites, with material targeted to specific demographic groups – not just kids and parents, but seniors, adults, and those with unique opportunities or risks.
Public service announcements and public awareness campaigns focus on two areas: informing consumers about the tremendous benefits of online access, as well as teaching core self-protective measures such as recognizing a phishing scam or teaching consumers to identify how information leaks, and avoid posting personal information in public access websites.
Infrastructure: Service providers should be motivated to enhance their services’ infrastructure to include robust security and safety functionality – such as built-in antivirus software and personal/family safety settings – for all accounts. Companies should be encouraged to innovate and seek competitive advantage on the safety front — and emphasize that innovation in their marketing.
Enforcement: The FCC needs to coordinate with the appropriate agencies to ensure that law enforcement at the local, state and national levels are provided the manpower, training, and resources needed to adequately respond to online crimes. Consumers need to feel assured that crimes committed against them online will not go unpunished.
Service providers to be encouraged to enforce their terms of service policies – today most sites have lofty terms, but fail to adequately enforce these – and an unenforced policy is worse than no policy at all as it creates a false sense of safety.
Service providers should also be encouraged to improve their site moderation and develop technologies to identify and respond to abuses as they occur, as well as providing parents with filtering tools and providing information enabling them to monitor and set clear rules for children’s use.
Until consumers are convinced of the relevance of broadband access in their lives, and are convinced that they can go online safely we will continue to see a gap between the government’s access goals and consumer’s adoption rates.