The Underserved’s Role in Broadband Sustainability

This week I spoke at the Internet Innovation Alliance on the topic of Making Broadband Affordable for All Americans. Besides reinforcing some of my previous thoughts about sustainability, partnering and local governments’ role in broadband development, I threw out a provocative thought that broadband advocates can address now or address later when it costs more money to resolve.

When I laid out the list of contributors to the financial stability of broadband networks, I stated that low-income constituents need to pay for their network services. Not something you hear everyday, but nevertheless it needs to be said. Whether true or not (often not), digital inclusion in some circles is perceived to be free access for poor people.

I believe that currently the price of broadband and its lack of availability  are legitimate barriers to adoption in lower-income communities, and whatever community networks are built must address this issue. However, everybody needs to pay something, and you should be clear about this upfront.

Even if it is just $5 a month to start, people need to associate a cost with the benefit they’re receiving in their homes and community centers so they appreciate it and use it to make something better of their lives. As subscribers’ improve their job status, start businesses or improve the ones they already have, their subscription fees should rise to match the rest of subscribers.

Constituents receiving donated hardware and broadband access should be required to complete personal or career advancement programs. Those completing broadband training should, if they don’t pay a fee for the training, should be required to put in hours helping others in their community with tech services and other support.

There are three reasons for this.

First, as my grandmother told me repeatedly when I was a kid, if you’re too nice to people they won’t respect you and they won’t respect what you give them. So it is with broadband. This is a service offering immense value, but if you’ve never had a computer or surfed the Web site, you have to apply yourself to maximize their value. If it costs nothing to reap the benefits, nothing is what you’ll put into using it.

Wireless Philadelphia (now Digital Impact Group) has a couple of years of experience bringing broadband access, hardware and training to hundreds of underserved constituents. They quickly learned at the start that everyone has to pay something in money and time if constituents are to benefit as much as possible from what they receive.

Second is financial sustainability. Read this column. It costs a lot of money to run a digital inclusion program that produces results. Recruiting nonprofits to help you identify and reach constituents is staff-intensive. It’s more time intensive reaching and convincing constituents, who by default are not part of the mainstream, to join the digital age. Training, getting entities to donate computers, renting facilities, all of this is requires money. Washington is about to give communities a lot of money to reach the underserved with broadband networks. Where’s the money coming from to actually move people from behind the digital curve and help them become a 21st century digitally proficient citizen? 

Network subscription fees that grow as individuals become more financially sufficient offset network operating costs. Requiring individuals who receive access and support packages to give back to the program offset digital inclusion programs’ expensive human resource costs. People I interviewed who run these programs say “graduates” are the best recruiters and trainers, the most motivated activists and great role models. And besides stretching your personnel budget, graduates pick up additional skills and contacts that improve their ability to get a better paying job.  

Finally, there is political sustainability. I get so sick and tired of reading after every digital inclusion news article snide comments bitterly complaining about “my tax dollars” helping the poor. But the reality is, in rough economic times it is difficult to champion and fund programs targeted to poor and poorly educated people. You have to look no further than California’s budget fights to see what I mean.  

Broadband and digital inclusion supporters face continuous pushback from certain political circles that make funding of your programs a constant challenge. You get a lot more political clout to smack down these challenges when you can point to the ability of your digital inclusion program to self-fund many of its expenses.  

P.S. Next time someone complains about spending “my tax dollars” to give poor people Net access, tell them to waltz over to Wall St. and pitch their complaint there. Let’s see, $800 billion and rising to bail out rich guys, $7 billion for digital inclusion. Hmmm.

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