News Leadership 3.0

March 09, 2010

National Broadband Plan: Opportunities for community news, civic engagement

On March 17, the FCC will deliver to Congress the controversial new National Broadband Plan—and this morning the nation got a preview of what this plan offers at an event co-hosted by the Knight Foundation at the Newseum in Washington DC. There will be much in this plan that could affect the future of US civic engagement, local news ecosystems, and the news business.

News organizations and news entrepreneurs should give this plan a close read—and also the recently published US consumer survey on broadband that the Brookings Institution conducted on FCC’s behalf. Getting familiar with this information now could help you spot emerging opportunities for providing news and info that strengthens local communities.

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

The full National Broadband Plan has not yet been released—despite numerous “preview the plan” notes on Broadband.gov, the actual document is not online yet. However, on Feb. 18 the FCC did publish its recommendations for key national broadband priorities, which should be reflected in the forthcoming plan. (See press release, report.)

The Obama Administration authorized the FCC to create a National Broadband Plan as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009—which included several broadband initiatives intended to accelerate US broadband deployment. Widespread broadband is considered to be a crucial component of the development of a viable “digital public square.” Since broadband expansion could also expand the availability of public wireless net access, this could also prove to be a significant boost to mobile net access.

The Knight Commission recognized broadband’s potential for civic engagement in recommendation 8 of its 2009 report:

“Set ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability and adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services.”

In that report, the Commission also expressed skepticism about whether the federal government’s current approach to broadband policy “is sufficient to ensure the US will reach full-fledged universal digital citizenship.”

Similarly, the US consumer survey on broadband offers crucial market context for local news/info providers. This data is very fresh—it was gathered October-November 2009. It focuses on home access to broadband, which is crucial from a civic engagement perspective since people tend to follow civic issues outside of work/school hours. A few highlights:

  • Broadband users value community news. Nearly 40% of surveyed broadband users said they consider keeping up with community news an important reason reason for going online. Only staying in touch with family and friends was rated important by more users (68%). African-American broadband users are especially likely (51%) to say that the Internet is very important to them for keeping up with community news and entertainment. A third of rural broadband users say their online access to community news is important.
  • US Broadband is widespread, but unevenly distributed. Currently 65% of US adults use a high-speed internet connection to go online from home. However, only 52% of households with an annual income less than $50,000 have broadband at home. And only 46% of US adults whose highest level of education is a high school diploma have home broadband. Also,  59% of African-Americans and 49% of Hispanics have home broadband.
  • Local/community news broadband demographics. Among broadband users, slightly more women (82%) than men (78%) get local news online. Parents are especially likely to get local news online (86%). A majority of broadband users in all age groups get local news online, ranging from 86% for 18-29 year olds to 58% for seniors 65+. Education level has a minor effect: 75% of adult broadband users with less than a high school education access local news online, compared to 85% for college plus. Income level shows a similar variation: 75-85% for all income levels, with the lowest level of local news importance falling in the middle income range ($50-75,000).
  • Cost affects usage. 36% of non-broadband users cite cost as the main reason they do not have home broadband. Also, broadband billing often lacks transparency: “On average, Americans pay nearly $41 per month for broadband service, but half of those who receive their broadband in a bundle with other services cannot identify the Internet portion of their bill.”
  • Perceptions of relevance.According to the FCC/Brookings consumer survey, 22% of Amercians do not use the internet at all. Of that group, about 35% indicated the internet is not relevant, interesting, or useful to them. Many non-internet users are also low-income. However, ArsTechnica recently reported on a new Social Science Research Council study that appears to counter the common myth that the internet and home broadband are less useful or relevant to poor people.

 

ACTION STEPS: When it is available, download and review the National Broadband Plan (which will be posted to Broadband.gov), and consider how it might affect your community and business in the coming years.

Track the action. Either attend (if you’re in the DC area) or watch the archived webcast of this March 16 BroadbandBreakfast.com event: Top Congressional tech staffers will discuss Setting the Table for the National Broadband Plan: Where to from Here?. Representatives of the main Congressional committiees hashing over the plan will be there: the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. (Good committees to start monitoring regularly.)

The National Broadband Plan is highly controversial—expect a big political battle here. Large, established businesses such as cable companies, broadcasters, and telcos have much at stake and are throwing substantial lobbying muscle toward protecting their interests. Expect that the there will be changes to the plan between the time it goes to committee and the version that eventually makes it to the floor of Congress.

Another great resource for tracking this issue is Drew Clark’s BroadbandBreakfast.com blog—one of the best sources of news and update for national, regional, and state broadband issues.

Track what’s happening in your state broadband task forces, commissions, or authorities. For local or community news ventures, this might be the most effective place to sway broadband policy to encourage local news and civic engagement.

Assess local obstacles to broadband penetration. Ask locals about the reasons cited by survey participants about why some people aren’t adopting broadband. Consider that the Knight report noted: “Communities cannot realize the full benefit of broadband deployment unless people actually connect to broadband networks. Thus the Commission encourages [efforts] to make broadband service more attractive.”

In other words, if broadband becomes universally available and affordable throughout your community, what will it take really create a viable, popular digital public square that most people will use and value? How might you strengthen your community (and your business) by working toward that goal?

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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