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CHAPTER V - The Consumer: Inclusion and Data Protection

Skirting bottlenecks—or their gradual elimination over time— promises great marketplace benefits. But by itself, ending bottlenecks may not address all the challenges in the broadband ecosystem. The two main challenges to keep in mind are:

  • Eliminating the digital divide, and;
  • Devising ways to ensure consumer protection in a data-rich society.

Adoption gaps and solutions
As a way to frame equity issues in communications policy, the digital divide has been the main organizing principle for at least 20 years. In the Clinton Administration—at a time when less than one in five Americans used the Internet—it gained prominence as a way to think about the digital “haves” and “have nots.” Now the nature of the gaps has flipped. Today, less than one in five Americans do not use the Internet, though anywhere between one-quarter and one-third do not have broadband at home.1 Yet participants agreed that the broadband adoption gap in the United States is too large and warrants efforts to address it. Julia Johnson, President of Net Communications pointed out that home broadband adoption rates are particularly low in poverty-stricken parts of the country, which are also the places the need for jobs is acute—and that broadband has a role to play in promoting employment. Chris Lewis, Vice President, Government Affairs at Public Knowledge, echoed the severity of the problem, and added that broadband is increasingly a conduit to education and government services.

Although the problem has a long history, solutions to the digital divide have evolved in recent years. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) spent $450 million on sustainable broad- band adoption and public computing centers in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The non-profit Everyone On, launched by former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, has sought to promote broadband adoption by promoting the relevance of connectivity to low-adopting populations. Comcast’s Internet Essentials (IE), a voluntary merger condition in the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, offers a discounted service plan to low-income households with children, access to computer and Internet training and the option to purchase a computer for $150.

These programs have had impacts in the geographic areas they serve. BTOP connected nearly 740,000 households in the 43 projects it funded through 2013. Since 2012, IE has attracted 500,000 customers in its service area. BTOP and IE have fostered a community of practice on how successful broadband adoption programs are structured. Partnerships with trusted community institutions are important in reaching low-adopting populations to draw them to online use. Training on how to use the Internet and computers is also important—and those new Internet users who have had training are more likely than those without training to use the Internet for job search and accessing government services.

Whatever the exact impact of these initiatives—and they are on the order of 1.2 million households connected—they are not of sufficient scale to address a broadband adoption gap that amounts to approximately 30 million households. How to muster resources appropriate to the size of the problem is one of the key recommendations to come out of attendees’ deliberations.

People, their data and their worries
Once people are online, the extent of their Internet use depends on a number of things. Familiar demographic factors—such as age or education—explain some portion of people’s usage patterns, with older and less-educated people usually less active online. A label to capture consumers’ predilection toward online use is “digital readiness”—a combination of skills and trust in the online environment that gives people the confidence to do important transactions online relating to health care or commerce.

How much trust in the digital environment impacts behavior is not a settled question. Surveys register consumers’ concern over whether their personal data is secure online, and about threats from bad actors online breaking into secure government or commercial data systems. Yet these concerns do not always translate into consumers’ online behavior. Data traffic seems to grow unabated by privacy (or other) concerns. There is also the caution embedded in the “privacy panic cycle” by which new technologies bring on the worry—perhaps warranted, but perhaps not—that, notwithstanding their benefits, new technologies offer new threats to privacy.

Nevertheless, with more of people’s lives being mediated by digital tools—transacting with merchants, securing the household or managing personal health and fitness—the potential consequences of data breaches grows. This, in turn, contributes to a sense of vulnerability, which Jeff Smulyan, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Emmis Communications emphasized, that many people feel when thinking about using modern communications networks. Developing mechanisms to protect consumers’ data and give them a greater sense of control over their personal data thus becomes more important than ever.

1 Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, “Broadband Adoption Rates and Gaps in U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” Brookings Institution, December 2015. Available online: media/research/files/reports/2015/12/07-broadband/broadband-tomer-kane-12315.pdf. This analysis uses the American Communities Survey 2014 estimate that 75% of homes have broad- band. See also, John B. Horrigan, “Home Broadband 2015,” Pew Research Center, December 2015 which reports on a 2015 Pew survey that shows that 67% of Americans have broadband at home.

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