An academic workshop at New America Foundation, April 11, 2012
As government services, political discourse and commerce expand online, policymakers and public interest organizations are promoting broadband “adoption” among people who are not currently using the Internet, or using it marginally. Yet there is little discussion of what “adoption” means or how it can be measured. For lack of a better indicator, agencies and researchers often use the metric of home subscription numbers, which tell us very little about the different modes or locations of access which may be more relevant for some populations, nor about the effects of adoption on new users and communities.
In the United States, the absence of meaningful metrics for adoption is becoming evident as two federal digital inclusion efforts -- the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) -- enter their evaluation phases. As policymakers and advocates search for ways to document the effect of these programs, the design of meaningful metrics could have implications for the sustainability of broadband initiatives and the well-being of individuals and communities identified as possible beneficiaries.
A myriad of methodological and conceptual challenges arises around studies of broadband adoption:
- The effects of adoption be diffuse, slow to appear, and interrelated with other factors, so it may be difficult to disaggregate them from other socioeconomic indicators, whereas policy directives have discrete funding periods and specific reporting requirements.
- Because meaningful adoption is concerned with what people use the Internet for (not just whether they use it, or where, or for how long), it is difficult to gather information without raising concerns about privacy or overburdening users with data collection.
- Adoption may lead to work, but not necessarily employment numbers; entrepreneurship and community involvement are positive outcomes that are difficult to document and measure (Boggs & Boggs, 1974; Alperovitz, 2011). The context of recession complicates attempts to measure discrete economic effects.
- The drive toward adoption may presume a lack of access to technology where there is none. As demonstrated in Eubanks’s (2011) study of poor women in upstate New York, some communities targeted for digital “inclusion” policies are already overwhelmed by the ubiquity of technology. Some populations may not lack access, but rather the means to control the ways in which technology intersects with their lives.
- Measuring home subscription rates does not account for other means of reliably accessing the Internet, including use of public facilities, a neighbor’s connection, or a mobile device; thus this metric fails to account fully for consumer preferences in the current market or the uneven regulatory framework applied to different modes of access (i.e., wired versus wireless).
- Adoption may be understood on a continuum. As Dailey et al. (2010) have shown, the assumption that adoption means a home subscription does not consider contextual factors that might cause a home subscription to have less impact than broadband use in other, more public contexts.
- Adoption has effects at many levels and scales. Home subscription rates show effects at a household scale, but fail to demonstrate how increased adoption affects a community or a city.
- The lack of meaningful metrics means that data used for mapping adoption rates in cities may not reflect the settings and modes in which people actually adopt and access technology. As a result, master planning efforts which try to address shortcomings in infrastructure or allocation of services may be focused on areas which are not actually most in need of assistance.
In light of these challenges, the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation is calling for proposals that address the question: “What is meaningful broadband adoption, and how can we measure it?” Authors of successful proposals will be invited for a day-long workshop at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, to present and discuss answers to this question. The goal of the workshop is to bring together researchers from different disciplinary traditions to discuss challenges in defining broadband adoption and its effects, address issues of reliability and validity, and present innovative methods for studying adoption. We welcome proposals that reflect work-in-progress as well as completed studies. We are especially interested in proposals that review recent broadband adoption initiatives, including those outside of the United States.
Please submit your proposal here by January 31, 2012. Proposals should explicitly identify the methodological and/or conceptual innovation that you are developing or have developed, as well as presentation format (slides, video, map, paper, interactive workshop, etc.). Do not include any information in your proposal that would enable reviewers to identify you. Proposals will be blind-reviewed by a multidisciplinary panel of scholars. Please note: final acceptance is contingent upon submission of completed works or works in progress one week before the date of the workshop.
Deadline for proposals: January 31, 2012
Confirmation of receipt: Week of February 5, 2012
Decision announced: March 2, 2012
Deadline for submission of completed work/work-in-progress: March 30, 2012
Workshop: April 11, 2012
Alperovitz, Gar. “The New-Economy Movement.” The Nation, June 2011.
Boggs, J., & Boggs, G. L. (1974). Revolution and evolution in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly
Dailey, D., Bryne, A., Powell, A., Karaganis, J., Chung, J., & Social Science Research Council (U.S.).
(2010). Broadband adoption in low-income communities. Brooklyn, NY: Social Science Research
Eubanks, V. (2011). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. Cambridge,
Mass: MIT Press.