BEAD — Let’s Not Throw Away Our Shot Part 3 – Adoption

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By: Marc McCarty and Meredith Morrison

When COVID-19 was classified as a pandemic in March 2020, much of our normal in-person activity ceased, and was replaced by a new, “online normal.” Even though millions lacked a broadband connection, without question our ability to remain connected played a critical role in maintaining our workforce, healthcare, and educational institutions in the immediate crisis. For example,

  • By May of 2020, 35% of employees worked remotely full-time through online connection.
  • Within the pandemic’s first three months, telemedicine encounters increased by 766%.
  • In 2020, 77% of public schools moved their classes to a  distance-learning format, and 84% of college students reported either some or all of their classes shifted to online-only instruction.

Since the pandemic’s onset, many things have returned to pre-pandemic normalcy, but the increased reliance on broadband remains a permanent feature of our lives.

  • Approximately 13% of employees work remotely (online) full-time, and 28% maintain a hybrid work schedule.
  • Today digital medical consultations are chosen 38 times more often than before the pandemic. In 2023, 37% of mental health visits took place virtually, followed by infectious disease, obstetrics, and transplant consultations.
  • While students and teachers continue to prefer in-person instruction at least for elementary and secondary students, online learning has clearly become a critical component for post-secondary education. Over half of degree seekers take at least some of their classes online, and over a quarter study exclusively online.

Yet full adoption of the applications that rely on broadband to better our lives continues to be a concern, even in communities with access to high-speed internet infrastructure. This blog addresses some key barriers to broadband adoption and like the two preceding blogs, suggests ways Public Organizations can help increase adoption rates in all communities, especially in those now receiving BEAD funding.

The term broadband “adoption” refers to overcoming three main barriers that prevent communities and residents from using available broadband service to their benefit.

  • Convincing skeptics that they need a fixed high-speed internet connection in their home,
  • Overcoming the privacy concerns and the fear of criminal activity on the internet, and
  • Developing the skills needed to use broadband applications effectively.

Convincing the Skeptics

Some may be surprised that in 2024, there is still a need to make the case for fixed broadband. After all, approximately 4 out of 5  households are already connected with some form of fixed broadband at home. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that just like the voice calling to Kevin Costner in the movie “Field of Dreams” – “if you build it, they will come” – or in this case if you build out the broadband network, folks will quickly subscribe for the service.  

Unfortunately, the truth is a bit more complicated. The most recent NTIA study found that in the households that still lack a fixed internet connection in the home, nearly 6 out of 10 don’t want or feel they need broadband. That percentage dwarfs those who aren’t online because they think it is too expensive (18%) or those who say they would subscribe if service was available (4%).

Overcoming Privacy and Security Concerns

Digital privacy and security concerns also deter millions of Americans from engaging in online activities. The spread of emerging technologies and practices, such as smart home devices and online activity tracking, puts these concerns at the forefront of adoption.  A 2023 public survey of 7,500 Missouri households showed that eight out of ten respondents cited security of their personal information as their top concern of internet adoption, and over half expressed concern about seeing misleading information.

Developing Digital Skills

A high speed internet connection can enable individuals to receive online treatment from their healthcare provider at home; shop for products, pay bills and bank; apply for government benefits; work from home or start an online business. However, the same technology can sow disinformation and mistrust, steal personal financial data, or create an addictive dependency on social media. Whether the internet is used for good or for evil largely depends on whether the users are equipped with the knowledge and the skills to use broadband effectively.

Adoption Is Critical to the Success of the BEAD Program

The percentage of broadband skeptics is particularly concerning because many of those currently disconnected  reside in rural locations destined to receive the bulk of Missouri’s BEAD funding. Of course, how questions are asked can impact the response, but that should not blind us to the need for a concerted effort to make the case for the use of broadband-based applications, along with the practical digital skills training necessary to navigate the internet safely and securely.

Broadband adoption also is critical from a purely economic standpoint. If those most likely to be the beneficiaries of BEAD funding don’t think they need it, or are afraid to use broadband, ISPs face the prospect of low subscription rates in areas that already have far fewer potential subscribers per mile than urban or suburban areas.

Fortunately, these concerns can be overcome. Over half of the respondents to the 2023 public survey expressed an interest in internet training assistance. “Help finding information and resources I can trust” (33%) and “assistance with setting up or using new devices” (28%) were the top two areas.

Public Organizations’ Role in Broadband Adoption

Public Organizations are uniquely situated to provide adoption programs that will address these concerns for many reasons. First, the improvement of the health, education and economic opportunity of their constituencies is the primary mission of most every Public Organization. Second, in many cases Public Organizations have already established a local connection with the community – and specifically with members of the community most at risk of being unable to use broadband-based applications to better their lives.

Finally, for local governments and related nonprofits many of the beneficial aspects of broadband-based applications lie in the ability to deliver better services more efficiently. Those who have learned to use the internet to apply for a permit, paid taxes, reported problems with utility service or otherwise interacted with local government have found the process is faster and more convenient than making an in-person visit or filling out paper forms and submitting them by mail.

In addition to being more efficient, these same technologies can also result in significant cost savings through reduced personnel and processing. However, when many of the most vulnerable lack the skills necessary to use these technologies, much of the benefit is lost, because two processing systems must be maintained, one that operates online, and a second “paper” system that accommodates those who are unable to use the new technology.

Resources for Adoption

There are literally hundreds of Public Organizations that have developed programs designed to address one or more of the three barriers to digital adoption outlined earlier in this blog. Many can be located through Mobroadband’s Missouri’s Digital Asset Map. This resource, created by the UM System at the request of OBD, is designed to allow organizations that offer digital skills to help individuals and communities quickly locate organizations that offer digital literacy programs, such as computer classes, one-on-one technical assistance centers, and bilingual resources.

Each community may have a different set of needs, and not every program will be appropriate for every community. However, each likely will face three questions.

  • What digital adoption programs does our community need most?
  • How can we integrate and coordinate our efforts with programs like BEAD that focus on internet access?
  • How do we pay for digital adoption?   

There are tools available to answer these threshold questions. One is the Digitally Connected Community Guide offered through MU Extension. The Guide leads community stakeholders to develop a shared vision of ways broadband based applications can promote better health outcomes, online learning and education opportunities and economic opportunity in their community. With that vision, stakeholders are then provided tools to approach and engage with ISPs to create a workable written plan that focuses on using new or expanded networks in ways that implement the community’s vision.

But what programs should the community use? This will vary of course depending on the community’s specific needs. Yet ideally, in every case these adoption programs should be offered by a trusted resource, and ideally they should be capable of addressing each individual’s needs through one-on-one instruction when needed.

One idea that has been successfully piloted by MU Extension in select communities is the Digital Ambassador program. This program trains a permanent cadre of local volunteers called – “Digital Ambassadors.” Trained Digital Ambassadors share specialized knowledge with individuals in their community on topics such as telehealth, cybersecurity, social media, applications like Google Docs and Office 365. Additionally, Digital Ambassadors learn practical skills necessary to help individuals set up their internet connection at home and navigate financial obstacles to broadband use, by accessing programs that subsidize internet service or provide affordable hardware. MU Extension plans to obtain funding to expand the Digital Ambassador program to all communities throughout the state.

Funding Digital Adoption Programs

Of course, Public Organizations must determine how they will pay for digital adoption programs if they are to participate with ISPs to create “digitally connected” communities. Thankfully, one new source of funding are federal grants authorized by the Digital Equity Act. Beginning sometime late summer or early this fall, OBD  is expected to begin accepting applications from Public Organizations for up to $14.2 million in grants to pay for broadband adoption programs. Additional funding, expected to total at least $10 million, should be available over the next two fiscal years under this program.

At the same time, this summer the federal government is scheduled to begin awarding up to $1.25 billion of grants through a competitive digital adoption program administered by NTIA. These programs, along with others already in place, should offer every interested community the opportunity to obtain financial support for broadband adoption programs that can complement and support efforts to build and expand broadband infrastructure over the next five years.

Let’s Not Throw Away Our Shot

The common theme running across this series of blogs is that now is the time for action. There has never been this level of financial support at the federal government level for broadband, and there is every reason to believe this investment will not be repeated, at least in our generation. Missouri has received a significantly greater proportion of this federal funding than other states, primarily because we have a greater need. The percentage of unserved and underserved locations in our state has been among the highest in the country, and our economic progress and our quality of life have suffered because of it.

We now have an opportunity to change that. This is our shot – what will we do with it?

Follow Marc McCarty:

Adjunct Professor, UMKC School of Law

Marc McCarty Adjunct Professor, UMKC School of Law University of Missouri System Broadband Initiative Steering Committee 816 235 1006 office 816 304 9808 cell