Mobile, not home, broadband is winning the people's hearts

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U.S. home broadband adoption has flattened out since 2009 while smartphone use has risen dramatically, according to a study from the bipartisan CEO network TechNet, which is calling upon government and private groups to consider new programs to encourage home broadband adoption. I'd like to pose an alternative approach: Focus the nation's time, efforts and money on enabling expanded uses for smartphones and other mobile devices as well as the wireless networks that support them, which are attracting high rates of adoption even without the significant government interventions being proposed to stimulate the home broadband market.

TechNet's report notes that home broadband access has stagnated at about two-thirds of the U.S. population over the past three years, with one third of population not yet on the broadband bandwagon. This standstill is rather stunning when one considers that the Obama administration made expanding broadband access a cornerstone of its technology policy starting in 2009. The National Broadband Plan introduced in 2010 has so far had little impact when it comes to connecting the unconnected.

In President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, he said he wanted to see broadband coverage extended to 98 percent of the United States within five years. With only four years left to make that vision a reality, TechNet says government and private groups must consider new programs to encourage broadband adoption.

John Horrigan, vice president of policy research for TechNet, contends that without increased broadband adoption, "we run the risk of having a less inclusive society, a smaller domestic market for technology goods and services and a less innovative economy."

I would argue that TechNet and numerous government officials are missing the point when it comes to connecting the unconnected. Wireless industry pundits have long said that in developing countries, most people's first and only experience with the Internet occurs over the mobile phone rather than a traditional computer. There is certainly evidence that such a situation could be true for certain segments of the U.S. population as well, in which case the focus on increasing broadband access to the home might be misguided, or worse, an utter boondoggle.

TechNet notes that research from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that 46 percent of adult Americans had smartphones by February 2012, up from only 17 percent in 2009. Yet the same research also showed that in February 2012 just 23 percent of non-broadband users had a smartphone, "a somewhat higher figure than that registered in April 2011, when 16 percent said this."

TechNet's argument is that non-broadband users--which it says have all the characteristics associated with not adopting information technology in that they are generally older, less educated, and poorer--are not buying smartphones as quickly as the rest of the population. That may be true, but it seems to me that this group is adopting smartphones more quickly than it is adopting home broadband, thus showing a clear preference.

TechNet also says "economic recession has contributed to the stalling of broadband adoption, " with many people cutting off their home broadband service due to economic stress. And the group notes there is precedent for this as telephone adoption actually reversed during the Great Depression.

But hold that thought. Let's backup two paragraphs. During our recent severe economic doldrums, smartphone use grew nearly threefold in just over two years. And smartphone use among non-broadband users continued to expand during that period as well. Consumers made a choice regarding what is important to them, and advanced mobile communications, rather than home broadband, was the clear winner.

The people have spoken, and they want their smartphones. And that goes for our older, less educated and poorer citizens in particular. In fact, many education- and income-challenged wireless customers have led the way in cord-cutting by ditching their home phones. That trend doesn't exactly bode well for them to suddenly want to adopt home broadband access.

While TechNet's report briefly cites ongoing developments in mobile healthcare (mHealth), it nonetheless contends senior citizen's future health care will depend upon home broadband. "Broadband access for senior citizens (just 45 percent of whom have subscribed) may be a choice for many unsophisticated older tech users, but the day will soon be on us when seniors' health care providers need them to have broadband access for better service delivery," said the group.

Several of the oldest Baby Boomers and the elderly that I know profess to having little or no interest in using PCs or installing broadband access at their homes, but they all own cell phones. Therefore, I would argue that these seniors would be much more likely to adopt and adhere to mHealth solutions rather than health care approaches that require traditional home broadband access. Mobile health care should eventually be able to deliver a vast array of services via feature phones and smartphones (as well as tablets and laptop computers). Not only that, these services will be delivered while people are on the go, living their lives out in the world rather than being trapped at home.

Access to more spectrum, incentives for operators to build out wireless networks to less-profitable markets, zoning rules that help operators install cell sites where they are needed and funding for the development of pioneering new service segments such as mHealth would go a long way toward ensuring the United States develops a more inclusive society, enables advanced technologies that can be used domestically as well as exported and creates a continuous pipeline of innovative services.

Do I have home broadband access? Yes, and I use it almost daily. Does everyone in the United States want or need it? I'm not convinced. Governments and private industry usually enjoy the greatest successes when they give people what they desire rather than what a bureaucrat thinks they should have. Expanding home broadband access is a worthy goal but should not be an exclusive one. To that end, I suggest that nurturing the wireless communications industry would achieve many of the National Broadband Plan's aims and much, much more.--Tammy