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Broadband Experts: All Adoption Is Local

The U.S. needs local education and training programs and better computer reuse programs to overcome a large broadband adoption gap, speakers at a broadband adoption forum said Tuesday.

About 95 percent of U.S. households have wired broadband available to them, but only about 65 percent subscribe, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. While the cost of broadband is an issue for some U.S. residents, more people who haven't subscribed question whether they need broadband, said John Horrigan, the FCC's consumer research director, speaking at the Roadmap to Broadband Adoption forum.

Programs that show nonsubscribers the relevance of broadband can work, said Elisabeth Stock, co-founder and CEO of Computers For Youth, a nonprofit that focuses on online educational opportunities for middle-school students in New York City and other urban areas. About 29 percent of the households at one Atlanta school had Internet access before Computers For Youth began working there, and two months after launching the program, 61 percent of the households had access, she said.

"The relevance of broadband, as well as digital literacy, accounts for more of why people are not adopters than does cost," Stock said. "Even without addressing cost, you can have a pretty big impact."

Several speakers at the forum talked about the need for education and training programs to be community-based, instead of a top-down approach from government or other organizations. While the FCC and other U.S. agencies can provide assistance, and in some cases, funding, decisions to subscribe to broadband are often based on local conditions, said Karen Archer Perry, a member of the FCC's National Broadband Task Force.

"If people in my neighborhood adopt broadband, it's likely that I will, too," she said.

The FCC, in its national broadband plan released in March, proposed a volunteer National Digital Literacy Corps that would work with local organizations to train prospective broadband users. If U.S. residents want the program, they will have to convince the U.S. Congress to fund it, with the cost of about US$100 million, Perry said.

The U.S. has traditionally resisted partnerships between private groups and government to solve problems, unlike many other countries, but those attitudes seem to be changing, added Rick Herrmann, director of U.S. public sector initiatives for Intel.

"What we do really well is from the bottom up," he added. "It's in our local communities. Our ability to innovate, replicate and iterate on that innovation constantly is what we do well and where we need to focus our efforts."

Schools need help in their efforts to educate students and families about the importance of broadband, Herrmann added. Too often, teachers are putting in extra hours as their schools' IT staff, he said.

Herrmann called on the U.S. to fund full-time, professional IT staffs at schools around the country.

Another problem affecting broadband adoption is the cost of a computer, said David McClure, president and CEO of the U.S. Internet Industry Association. In many areas, there aren't formal programs for organizations to donate used computers, and in many cases, used computers need to be upgraded to be useful to families or nonprofit organizations, he said.

Without being refurbished, three- or four-year-old donated computers often don't have the graphics capabilities and RAM needed to run modern applications, McClure said. Some organizations also strip out their hard drives before donating them, leaving the computers useless, he said. Instead, companies donating computers should use reliable hard drive-wiping tools, he said.

Groups such as Net Literacy, a program started by students in Indiana, can upgrade used computers for little money, but there needs to be a more organized way for businesses, government organizations and other groups to donate computers and have them upgraded for reuse, McClure said.

"Most organizations do not have a way to transfer those obsolete -- from their perspective -- assets to other areas that just really need them," he said. "[Nonprofits] can't take them without refurbishing. Chances are, what was good enough three years ago won't be good enough next year."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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