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.

Broadband Financing, Financial Services for My Blog Readers

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How to Keep iPhone Killers from Killing Your TCO (total cost of ownership)

After moderating a panel before CTIA that included some folks involved with Sony Ericson’s new Xperia device, and reading the latest Android hype, I wonder how organizations are preparing for the TCO challenge of convergence – and how badly will the C-Brigade (CEO, COO, etc) undermine those efforts?

Xperia panels

Xperia panels

Mobile device convergence is a hip concept. The average human constantly balances work, personal and family responsibilities through the day and into the night. So why have a cell phone for personal calls, a smartphone (itself a “converged“

 device) for business tasks and a portable DVD player or game console for those times you get to ignore the world? Converge everything into one super handheld device, right? 

But what does this do for the average organization? It’s rough enough trying to control the costs to implement and manage mobile apps along with a slew of true business devices. Now organizations have to gird themselves for a convergence onslaught, the Attack of the iPhone Killers. Devices with more features and add-ons than you can shake a USB port at. 

Here are a few recommendations to try to keep total cost of ownership (TCO) in check.

Look under the covers early.

Vendors’ marketing mavens are convincing your execs and workers they MUST have the new [fill in the blank] device. “Use it at play, use it at work! Hype, hype, buy, buy!!” And of course, once they’ve bought or received one as a gift, the proud new owners will bring these devices to work.

Next time you run to the store to buy headache relief, grab the Device of the Month to determine – and prepare for – the effect of several hundred of these banging on the VPN door. You may have a “we only support X” policy, but in reality, if a converged device reaches iPhone popularity, it’ll be like having tribbles on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (click if you don’t know the trouble with tribbles). Plan now, save TCO later.

Understand key issues that contribute to high TCO

Employees responding to direct marketing can circumvent your purchasing process, making accounting and reimbursement more difficult. People may get devices through carriers the organization doesn’t support. Picture taking and video capture capabilities put company secrets and employees’ privacy at risk. Devices may not use the operating system IT supports. Devices may not be able to support business apps beyond e-mail and contact management.

Address these and other issues with the vendor, as well as learn their product roadmap of future features.

Guard your Achilles Heel

The C-brigade and business unit managers who are supposed to be IT’s partners in implementing mobile tech strategies can actually undermine the organization’s best interests. They see a converged devices, swoon and before you know it, buy them for the entire management team with no thought to data security, IT support or business strategy.

Though a touchy tactic politically, convene the management team and explain why it’s bad for the organization to independently purchase devices that haven’t been vetted for enterprise use. Otherwise, once management buys into the hype and start using a device, it’s hard to execute a mobile business strategy if you later discover the device doesn’t meet your needs. 

Resolve the culture wars

Converged devices are extremely personal and breed a strong attachment from their users, mainly because they store personal data, and users keep the devices on their person. This me-my-mine mindset feeds into increased feelings of us-vs-them among middle managers and workers towards the company in these hard economic times. This makes it difficult to keep folks from buying devices heavily marketed with the “me” focus, or to get people to follow network and security policies. How will you tackle this?

Needs analysis – or the art of TCO pain avoidance

T-mobile says they’re receiving so many pre-orders they have to increase production of the new GI device. It’s a safe bet many of these G1s will find their way into organizations that have done zero needs analysis to determine how, or if, these devices should be part of the business operation.

If you have a mobile business strategy plan, determine how these new converged devices fit the plan. If you’re still trying to determine what your plan is, get out there among mobile execs and regular workers to learn what mobile tech will help the organization save money, make money or operate more effectively. You may discover that these devices should have a role in your business. But if they don’t, the needs analysis results help you better fend off the next digital device rock star.

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