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Can we have affordable broadband for everyone? Can we afford not to?

A new national survey points out the extent of the problem: and an academic researcher explores how a reimagining of the Universal Service Fund may help solve it:

WASHINGTON D.C. – December 10, 2009 – Only 42 percent of African Americans and Hispanics regularly use the Internet, yet they overwhelmingly agree that Internet access is critical to achieving success, according to new findings from a national survey of 900 minority adults conducted by Brilliant Corners Research, led by Pollster Cornell Belcher. The results from this survey will be revealed today in Washington, D.C., at the Internet Innovation Alliance’s (IIA) Symposium, “Universal Broadband:  Access for All Americans.”

Featured keynote speaker and highly-regarded Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher will address the poll results and shed light on the lessons that can be extrapolated to accelerate progress in closing the digital divide.

“In this groundbreaking survey we found that members in two of the country’s largest minority communities believe that Internet access is essential for many critical daily activities, including staying in touch with family, online education and research, job hunting and networking, and accessing information about health care, weather and traffic,” said Belcher, principal author of the report.  “And yet alarmingly, less than half – 42 percent – of the same demographic regularly uses the Internet.”

Members of African American and Hispanic communities believe in the value of high-speed broadband Internet, as opposed to outdated, slower dial-up service. In fact, nearly one-in-five respondents (18%) identified ‘speed of connection’ as the one thing they would change to make it easier to access the Internet – even more so than if Internet access were free (10%).

“It’s extremely important to note that the top answer given by those polled for how to ‘make it easier to access the Internet’ was [faster] speed of connection,” said IIA Co-Chairman Bruce Mehlman. “Policy makers working toward universal broadband must understand that speed of connections – achieved via robust investments in infrastructure and effective network management – are essential for both access and adoption.”

For an open-ended question on ‘one thing you could change that would make you more likely to want to access the Internet,’ affordability ranked near the top of the list. This result points to the fact that many groups are price-sensitive and that higher costs of broadband access could hurt adoption if communities of color are deterred from capitalizing on the benefits of high-speed Internet.

“It is very telling that of those respondents who do not have Internet access, 43 percent cited either not knowing how to use the Internet or not seeing the need for the Internet as the reason why they are not online,” said IIA Co-Chairman David Sutphen. “But interestingly, 44 percent of these same respondents said they would be more likely to subscribe to Internet services if they were provided free lessons on how to use the technology and 30 percent would be more likely to adopt if they had more information about how they could benefit from going online. It’s clear that digital literacy programs indeed are a crucial part of the formula for closing the digital divide.”

Poll respondents strongly agree on several Internet-enabled, life-changing benefits that make access so valuable:

* More than 60 percent (64%) of those polled strongly believe the Internet is important, because students with access can receive tutoring and help with their homework.
* Forty-three percent of respondents strongly agree that students with Internet access achieve higher grades.
* More than three in five (61%) strongly feel households with Internet access have greater access to commerce, education, health care, entertainment and communication.
* Approximately half (48%) strongly agree that Internet is valuable, because tech-connected families receive more health information.
* More than 60 percent (62%) strongly believe individuals with Internet access have more opportunities to work from home.
* Nearly seven in ten (68%) respondents strongly agree that small business owners with Internet access are better able to reach and expand their customer base.
* One in two (51%) strongly feel Internet access increases awareness and access to government services.

Most of the respondents said they accessed the Internet from home –  78 percent – and slightly more than two-thirds (68%) said they access the Internet from a private portal, as opposed to a public portal, such as at anchor institutions like the library.

“It is clear that home Internet connections are critically important to expanding broadband access and adoption in communities of color,” said Sutphen.  “Policy makers would be wise to keep this reality in mind as they consider ways to continue closing the digital divide and ensure that all Americans can benefit from broadband.”

Congressional approval of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $7.2 billion for broadband development and charged the FCC with creating a national broadband plan, due to Congress in February 2010. According to the IIA, an effective National Broadband Strategy will enable the government to partner with the private sector to extend broadband service to every corner of the country, while at the same time raising awareness of its benefits.

Dharma Dailey explores possible solutions in this paper prepared for the Media Justice Fund: