Researchers Ask: What is Meaningful Broadband Adoption?

Published:  April 17, 2012
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A group photo of the workshop participants.

As federal and local authorities continue efforts to close the digital divide in the United States, innovative researchers are using new approaches to understand why some people “adopt” broadband—and why others choose to remain offline.

On Wednesday April 11, a group of more than 30 researchers, practitioners, and policymakers gathered for a workshop targeted toward establishing more effective broadband policy frameworks. The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative convened the day-long event, Defining and Measuring Meaningful Broadband Adoption, where researchers highlighted both barriers and incentives embedded in digital inclusion policies.

“Meaningful broadband adoption” emerged in this discussion as a concept that depends largely on the context of local communities, rather than on an easily quantifiable goal. Simple metrics like raw increases in household subscriptions to commercial broadband services leave out social context and do not document important steps on the road to full digital literacy. Workshop participants discussed measuring broadband as a knowledge-sharing process that takes place along a continuum of adoption instead of in terms of “haves” and “have nots.”

One researcher shared her work on a digital inclusion project aimed at 65 rural communities in southwest Alaska. Since few people in rural areas like this have home broadband subscriptions, it makes more sense to monitor how community members interact with technology in the context of anchor institutions like schools, libraries and health clinics, than at home. Another researcher spoke about similar issues in rural Florida, where local policy-makers put broadband adoption low on the list of their many concerns due to a lack of comprehensible information on implementation processes and the possible impact of digital literacy programs.

Another workshop participant spoke about evaluating computer hot spots offered by city library branches located in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Interviews, focus groups and surveys demonstrated that participants’ level of comfort is an important factor in that program’s effectiveness. Such a finding speaks to the importance of trusted organizations like public libraries which offer training, support and mentorship, and also serve as gathering-places in their neighborhoods.

The group also spent some time thinking about the literacy and linguistic barriers to meaningful adoption. Many researchers reported that participants in the programs they evaluated often lacked basic literacy skills, or were non-native English speakers. These communities tend to go online all together, rather than one by one, as knowing others who are online and share interests draws new users.

OTI’s Seeta Peña Gangadharan and Greta Byrum highlighted that understanding the institutional and social structures of digital inclusion programs is essential to gauging the success these policies, both in terms of coalitions of community groups and public-private partnerships. While federal support of locally-based programs is crucial to adoption, public-private partnerships can also be critical to digital inclusion and deserve similar attention—and similar scrutiny—as government efforts.

Overall, the workshop added to a growing body of research which analyzes the social processes that inform broadband adoption efforts. As experts move toward more considered engagements with communities, this research will prove essential.

The papers presented at the event will be featured in a special section of the International Journal of Communication  this year.

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