Broadband Availability: The Dog that Didn't Bark

by on March 3, 2010 · 0 comments

I was slow to adopt broadband. So maybe it’s also appropriate that I was slow to read John Horrigan’s highly informative survey on broadband adoption released by the Federal Communications Commission on February 23. Or maybe it’s fortuitous, because the delay let me take a look to see what messages the news media took away from this survey.

Two clear messages appear in the news coverage.  The first is a variant of the screaming headline the FCC put on its own press release: “93 Million Americans Disconnected from Broadband Opportunities.” You’ll find this as the headline or lead paragraph in coverage by the New York Times and AFP.

The second type of message highlights the main reasons one-third of the population does not subscribe to broadband. “FCC Survey Shows Need to Teach Broadband Basics,” notes the headline on an Associated Press story. According to the survey, the three main obstacles to broadband adoption are cost, lack of digital literacy, and non-adopters’ perception that broadband is not sufficiently relevant to their lives.  (I got a chuckle when I saw that non-adopters said they would be willing to pay $25, on average, for broadband; that’s the magic price that finally induced me to give in and sign up!)

But whoa, what’s missing here?  Our old friend Availability. Broadband was supposed to be some kind of noveau public works project that would take hundreds of billions of dollars to bring to fruition, because many Americans lack access to broadband. “Build it and they will come!” “Pour that concrete information superhighway!” “Stimulate the economy!”

The FCC survey tells an interesting story about availability:

Of the … non-adopters, 12 percent say they cannot get broadband where they live. This translates into a 4 percent share of Americans—on the basis of their reports on infrastructure availability in their neighborhood—who say they are unable to obtain broadband because it is not available. This means that 31 percent of all Americans can get service but do not. (p. 5)

The survey also notes that 10 percent of rural respondents say broadband is not available where they live.  I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but that’s all?  Heck, I’d have guessed a higher percentage than that.   

To put the numbers in perspective: 4 percent of Americans say they don’t have broadband because it isn’t available, while almost three times as many — 10 percent — lack broadband because they think the Internet is irrelevant to their lives.

Is availability a problem in some places?  Sure. But the FCC survey shows it isn’t nearly the size of problem we’d been led to believe. So let’s hope the National Broadband Plan’s discussion of availability is similary circumscribed and appropriately targeted.

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