Who Cares about Broadband?

by on August 12, 2010 · 2 comments

The folks at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project came out with another installment of their “Home Broadband” survey yesterday. This one, Home Broadband 2010, finds that “adoption of broadband Internet access slowed dramatically over the last year.” “Most demographic groups experienced flat-to-modest broadband adoption growth over the last year,” it reports, although there was 22% growth in broadband adoption by African-Americans.  But the takeaway from the survey that is getting the most attention is the finding that:

By a 53%-41% margin, Americans say they do not believe that the spread of affordable broadband should be a major government priority. Contrary to what some might suspect, non-internet users are less likely than current users to say the government should place a high priority on the spread of high-speed connections.

This has a number of Washington tech policy pundits scratching their heads since it seems to cut against the conventional wisdom.  Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post penned a story about this today (“Support for Broadband Loses Speed as Nationwide Growth Slows“) and was kind enough to call me for comment about what might be going on here.

I suggested that there might be a number of reasons that respondents downplayed the importance of government actions to spur broadband diffusion, including that: (1) many folks are quite content with the Internet service they get today; (2) others might get their online fix at work or other places and not feel the need for it at home; and (3) some may not care two bits (excuse the pun) about broadband at all.  More generally, I noted that, with all the other issues out there to consider, broadband policy just isn’t that important to most folks in the larger scheme of things. As I told Kang, “Let’s face it, when the average family of four is sitting around the dinner table, to the extent they talk about U.S. politics, broadband is not on the list of topics.”

I also noted that many Americans are getting increasingly fed up with the scope of government power and the sort of wasteful spending that is increasingly bankrupting our nation and future generations.  More specifically, to the extent people know about them, existing universal service schemes for telephone service are massively inefficient and a prime example of why many Americans don’t trust their government to deliver on such grandiose tech-entitlement promises. One government report after another lambastes the waste, fraud, and abuse that runs rampant today our universal service system, and yet, those programs just keep growing and growing, year after year.

That’s why I told Kang that extending the same kind of federal aid to broadband providers is not likely to be any more efficient. “My skepticism comes from a poor government track record on tech funding,” I told her.  And I suspect that many people are equally skeptical for such reasons, and that might be influencing their answers when responding to Pew or other surveys.

Finally, I bet there are some folks out there who believe that, to the extent government should have a role in the “spread of affordable broadband” at all, that role should be focused on (1) clearing the deck of unnecessary regulatory burdens that prevent quicker rollout of privately-funded networks, and (2) limiting any subsidies that may be needed after that to targeted state and local programs for the truly neediest, not grandiose federal tech-pork barrel schemes.  Indeed, that’s my own position.

Of course, as I’ve noted here many times before, liberty is a loser these days and the natural progression of history is for Big Government to just grow and grow and grow.  So, I am prepared to get in line for my own tech handouts, as I noted in my essay last October, “Broadband as a Human Right (and a short list of other things I am entitled to on your dime).”

  • john

    Adam, imagine you were tasked with USF reform, and didn't have the option of just getting rid of it. What's your view on areas that are uneconomic to build out to, because of geography/pop density? (As opposed to people who may not be able to afford a particular service. For those, I tend to favor general reverse income tax/direct cash payments as opposed to targeted “vouchers” or “broadband food stamps”–I don't think this is all that different for your view. Who wants a gift certificate to Comcast when your kids need new shoes?)

    Direct subsidies to users is such areas would have to be enormous. Reverse auctions could work in areas that are only marginally uneconomic. More dependence on wireless/satellite?

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Sure, reverse options are second-best solution if trapped in the USF box. But, oh, what a horribly inefficient box to be trapped in. My job is to think outside such boxes in the hope of someday escaping them.

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