Broadband adoption attracting serious research

At the end of the last post, I promised to pass along some info about two new research studies that dig further into a) digital have-nots; and b) the billions of dollars the US economy may be flushing away by ignoring broadband illiteracy.

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Including the Excluded“Everybody don’t have coffee shops.”

A community worker and broadband researcher working with a young man in Philadelphia. A new report describes forcefully how much the urban poor are losing out by being digitally excluded. The authors describe the outcome as a “de facto non-adoption tax” on low-income Americans (photo: Amalia Deloney).

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These two studies are fascinating. In their very different ways, they provide detailed insights into the social costs of excluding large numbers of people from the broadband population. Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities, prepared by the Social Science Research Council and released this March, is qualitative, based on 170 in-depth interviews. The Economic Impact of Digital Exclusion takes a mostly quantitative and equally serious approach (the bib alone is 8 pages). It’s the work of a Philadelphia-based non-profit advocacy organization, Digital Inclusion Group (DIG), in collaboration with economic consultancy Econsult Corp.

Social injustice in the digital age

These studies don’t just offer new data. They re-frame some big ideas about broadband in two very important ways.

First, they argue that non-adopters are being positively harmed – in many ways – by exclusion from the digital world. This finding applies in spades to marginalized groups, i.e. those most in need of being included. One of the most telling elements of the Low Income study is its focus on urban dwellers. Canada’s historic obsession with our disadvantaged rural population continues to give the government and incumbents a handy pretext for overlooking everything that’s wrong in our urban centres, especially for the poor. From the Summary of the DIG report (p.3):

“The SSRC was commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to analyze the factors shaping low rates of adoption of home broadband services in low-income and other marginalized communities. The resulting study is one of the only large-scale qualitative investigations of barriers to adoption in the US, and complements recent FCC survey research on adoption designed to inform the National Broadband Plan. The study draws on some 170 interviews of non-adopters, community access providers, and other intermediaries conducted across the US in late 2009 and early 2010.”

The Summary continues by flipping the logic connecting status and broadband:

“Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it—and residents of low-income communities know this [my emphasis].”

In other words, policymakers need to start thinking about broadband as an input to prosperity and not as a reward for citizens who can afford it in the first place.

Financializing the social harms of broadband exclusion

The second Big Idea is brought into sharp focus by The Economic Impact of Digital Exclusion. Another flip in the old logic. We used to think broadband was destined to be a great engine for economic growth. And the underlying assumption is that if fast, affordable broadband does not become a high priority, we’re losing opportunities – but not real money. That assumption turns out to be false, at least if we accept the assumptions of this report as they apply to the US (from the Executive Summary):

“This report develops a taxonomy of negative economic impacts associated with digital exclusion, articulates the mechanisms through which digital exclusion has adverse impacts, and qualitatively and quantitatively evaluates categories of significant impact. This report took a conservative approach to evaluating impacts by seeking to identify minimum likely levels of impact in each category. Summing the conservative, low- end estimates of 11 categories of economic impact yields an aggregate estimate of the current costs of digital exclusion at over $55 billion per year” (emphasis original).

This hefty figure is based on estimates, not directly measurable variables. So there’s much to argue about here, as the authors are the first to admit:

“It is therefore important to define the boundaries of this assessment. This study, which provides the first estimates of the full range of economic impacts of digital exclusion in the US, derives its cost estimates from previously published research in each of the impact categories. In most cases, the costs of digital exclusion cannot be directly observed, and therefore must be inferred, which inevitably requires assumptions that have not been verified. This report, therefore, is best viewed as an approximation of the scale of economic impact and as offering guidance on concepts worth further elaboration, analysis, and quantification” (p.4, emphasis original).

SNAPs: Sensitive, New Age Policymakers

What’s the appropriate response to research findings of this kind? Three members of FCC’s Adoption and Usage Team had some cool comments on the DIG/EC report when it was published, posted on the broadband.gov blog. Those would be some of the folks who last Tuesday brought us the National Broadband Plan. Their comments show they know the subject-matter. They know how to offer a balanced judgment. But most of all, they see their job as getting inside the heads of of end-users – especially non-adopters and what’s needed to make their lives better:

“For those following how the Broadband Task Force has characterized the problem of non-adoption, the term “cost of digital exclusion” is familiar. The idea has roots in the academic literature, where Rahul Tongia and Ernest Wilson have argued in “Turning Metcalfe on His Head: The Multiple Costs of Network Exclusion” that the costs of not being online rise faster than the growth of the network. Blair Levin’s “Wired for Social Justice” speech touched on this idea in noting the societal benefits that come about from getting more people online.

“A new report prepared by the Digital Impact Group and Econsult Corporation (DIG/EC) adds to the discussion by attempting to quantify the economic impacts associated with digital exclusion. The DIG/EC report, The Economic Impact of Digital Exclusion, finds that the aggregate costs of having one-third of the nation without broadband access comes to $55 billion per year when looking across 11 areas of impact (e.g., health, education, economic opportunity).

“We note that the estimated cost should be approached cautiously. In addition to the inherent data-related challenges in this kind of undertaking, the report explicitly does not attempt to estimate the net benefits – it does not include the cost of programs that may be necessary to bring about the growth in broadband access that create the estimated benefits.

“Nonetheless, we hope that the DIG/EC study will spur an ongoing discussion of the costs of digital exclusion. Such a discussion among policy-makers, practitioners and economists is crucial to building an inclusive broadband future.”

D.E.