Broadband for Everyone, But at What Cost?

As a technologist and Internet entrepreneur, I often find myself talking about the potential
social and economic outcomes that are made possible with increased broadband access,
adoption and use, especially when that access is by low-income people, the underserved
and minorities.

At root, I firmly believe that the Internet (and not your parent's dial up, but high-
speed Inter via fiber, DSL, cable or 4G wireless connections) is the great equalizer for Americans in the 21st century. The problem though is that even with all the "access"
people arguably, have, we -- mostly people of color -- are not adopting and using the
technology as much as we should.

Now, some recent studies point to the uptick in wireless adoption as a tell-tale sign
that the digital divide has closed, and all is right as rain when it comes to broadband
adoption. However, what people fail to realize is that that kind of use is still largely
limited to consumption. All too often, though we may download apps and ringtones, and
watch volumes of YouTube videos for hours on end, we've still yet to transition to being
content creators online, working with web environments to bolster our daily ambitions
and economic prospects.

Why are we so often consumers and not producers, you might ask? The answer it simple
-- it all goes back to the value proposition of being online. Most of us have access but
don't understand the value of using the Internet for social, political and economic gain, of
adopting and using the technology to our best benefit.

Now, the government has spent loads of money in recent years on broadband
programs -- $7.2 billion, to be exact, was allocated as part of the American Recovery
and Reinvestment Act. Of that, the USDA's Rural Utility Service (RUS) -- the agency
responsible for reaching the underserved -- had $2.5 billion to fund the Broadband
Initiatives Program (BIP). Unfortunately, instead of using that money to spur broadband
adoption through increased programming and outreach about the value of the medium,
RUS has been spending its resources to deploy broadband to communities where services
already exists.

A recent study commissioned by the National Cable and Telecommunications
Association found that RUS was engaging in duplicative spending in areas where broadband (via some sort of connection) was already available to 85% of the households
in the area. I'm no rocket scientist, but it seems to me that the investment of federal
dollars would be better spent on ensuring that people adopt the services already available
to them, instead of developing new services and providers for folks to continue to ignore.

Another RUS program - the Farm Bill Broadband Loan program - has spent nearly $2 billion since 2002 in much the same manner, supplying cheap loans to companies that cherry-pick areas already served rather than bringing infrastructure to the final 5-10% of Americans who have none. Unless Congress or RUS forces a change in the rules, another $300-400 million in loans could be wasted this year alone.

Not to mention, a $300-$400 million investment in computing hardware, digital literacy
programs and online training seems like it would stretch a whole lot farther than an
investment of that same size in duplicative broadband connections.

We can, and certainly should, continue to pursue this goal of universal broadband connectivity. But in order to be truly effective, we ought to focus our energies on making sure that people use the technologies they are connected with.

Navarrow is the President of Maximum Leverage Solutions, a consulting firm that delivers internet and social media strategy consulting as well as technology development consulting to its clients.