Stirring the Pot: Access, adoption and use

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Access. adoption and use are the three legs of broadband promotion.  Access is the network.  Adoption is affordability and basic training. Use is increased sophistication of technology by individuals, but also entire economic sectors, like retailing, education, health care and manufacturing.  I have observed the inconsistent pace at which these three factors move forward.  Broadband network deployment is heavily influenced by federal, state and even local government finance programs.  Federally, we saw the underwhelming impact of poorly designed and executed CAF II program and more positive continuing results of the ACAM funds.  The next big this is the RDOF reverse auction that will heat up in October and November.  We have seen the overwhelmingly positive results of the MN Border to Border Broadband Fund.  In rural, if the government is not funding it, wired broadband investment just is not happening.

Adoption is driven by availability and affordability, especially the latter.  Affordability took a big leap forward with the Comcast Digital Essentials Program.  Originally designed as some eye candy to allow regulators to approve Comcast’s purchase of competitors, the company continues to implement the program and has increased the speeds provided during the pandemic.  Some other providers have followed suit and have started their own programs, some of which have since abandoned their low-cost programs.  The new Connected MN program will be a helpful addition, at least short-term, to the adoption toolbox.  Prior to the pandemic, the digital “homework gap” was highly noted, but not cause for significant policy response.  With kids attending school from home, the gap became a chasm.

Sophistication of use was mostly held back by fear, regulations, inflexible management and other non-technical factors.  The pandemic busted through all of those barriers around tele-health (payments, privacy), tele-work (management oversight and e-security issues), e-commerce offerings and purchases (fear and lack of investment by businesses and fear and tradition by consumers).  “Necessity as the mother of invention” swept away many of these artificial barriers.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens as we move forward post-pandemic.  Will federal and state governments decide to limit funds for broadband projects or will broadband deployment be a centerpiece of economic stimulus packages?  Will downtowns and suburban office buildings need to be converted to housing as people continue to work from home?  Will education be transformed with more choices for either at-home or at-school offerings?  Which direction will the health care industry go with tele-health?  Affordability is certain to be front and center on the adoption front.  Today, school districts are providing devices and connectivity for students.  Will this continue or will we be content to again worry about the homework gap for a significant portion of the student population.

Seems like some good questions for our candidates!

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