Broadband technology allows users to access the Internet and the growing list of services and devices that utilize high-speed Internet access. Among other uses, consumers use broadband connections for voice, video, and other data services. An increasing percentage of Americans have a broadband connection at home, although older Americans continue to lag behind other age groups (Figure 10-1). Broadband technology enables real-time interaction and communication that is almost as precise and expressive as a face-to-face conversation (Figure 10-2).
Broadband access is often necessary to use new technologies that improve quality of life for people of all ages and that allow people to age in place. Thus ensuring access, affordability, and training is essential to enable older people to benefit fully from new technologies. Over six in ten adults age 65 and older are online, but just over half of those 65-plus have a broadband connection at home, according to the Pew Research Center. Above age 75, even fewer adults are online and have broadband in the home. And access is not enough; in order to take full advantage of the benefits of technology, people need to develop relevant digital skills, and some may need support to do so.
Connecting via broadband for successful aging—all people need to connect with one another and be part of a wider community, but for older adults, staying connected is especially important. Gerontologists assert that active engagement with life (e.g., continuing with productive activities and maintaining social ties) is critical for successful aging. Indeed, older adults often find more opportunities for enhanced working, learning, and social contact in later life than ever before, particularly if they learn to use new technologies that can connect them with other people.
With its greater speed, broadband can be a powerful tool for addressing the needs of an aging population. It can facilitate access to health care services, social contacts, employment, recreation, civic engagement, entertainment, and other activities that contribute to successful aging. For example, a broadband connection that can support monitoring devices and interactive video makes home health care a viable option for many consumers; this particularly helps individuals who have limited mobility, are too sick to travel, or live in rural areas far from health care facilities. The Veterans Health Administration’s national home tele-health program provides care for veterans via remote monitoring and videoconferencing. Data gathered from participating veterans who have at least one of six chronic conditions—diabetes, chronic heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder—showed high levels of patient satisfaction with the program and, compared with ordinary modalities, significant reductions in the number of bed days of care and the number of hospital admissions.
Growing evidence suggests that patients with chronic conditions can successfully use mobile data communications to help them maintain healthy lifestyles or modify behaviors such as smoking, overeating, and lack of exercise. For instance, studies show that text messaging and cell phone applications help patients manage disease. For such options to be available, however, accessible high-speed networks must be able to support bandwidth-intensive applications for a rapidly growing user base (see Chapter 9, Livable Communities, for more on the benefits of broadband Internet access.)
Problems in the US broadband market—studies show that the US trails more than a dozen countries in broadband service adoption and network speed. The rankings suggest that the telephone and cable companies’ market power may be a major factor in the degree to which the US lags other countries in broadband penetration. Indeed, current policies that rely on market competition to expand and improve broadband Internet access do not serve American consumers well. Some parts of the country remain unserved, meaning that they lack broadband Internet access altogether, and other parts of the country remain underserved, meaning that they lack state-of-the-art broadband speeds.
Even in communities that have broadband Internet access, most households typically have only two choices for broadband: the cable company, which sends data through lines also used to deliver television signals, and the phone company, which either sends the data using digital subscriber line (DSL) service over older telephone lines or, in some communities, using fiber, which supports, higher-speed broadband. As consumers increasingly seek higher speeds, those who live in communities where the phone company has not upgraded its network may have only one supplier—the cable company. The “telco-cable” broadband duopoly is not likely to change in upcoming years.
Despite the lack of broadband competition, rates for broadband service are not regulated in the United States. With such limited competition, providers have few incentives to upgrade networks or reduce prices. Even for households located in urban and high-income areas, the current market does not deliver state-of-the-art or even high-quality broadband. Meanwhile, as US broadband service remains expensive and often unattainable, in other countries prices for broadband access have plummeted as transmission speeds have soared. In Japan, for example, consumer broadband Internet speeds are on average 20 times faster than those in the US, at half the price.
In order to combat a lack of broadband Internet access, some communities have begun using innovative methods to provide access to a wider range of consumers and households. This includes community broadband networks, utilizing payphones, kiosks, school buses and other platforms to share broadband access around communities. These evolving strategies can bring broadband access to those who cannot otherwise receive it, including those in public housing, rural areas, and other places where access may be difficult.
Smartphones and Internet Usage—according to the Pew Research Center, 13% of Americans are smartphone-only internet users, meaning that they do not have broadband internet at home and rely solely on their cell phone’s (or tablet’s) 3G or 4G data plan for internet. This population skews younger, lower-income, less educated, black, and Hispanic. These users also can supplement their smartphones with desktop computers at libraries and can “tether” their data plan to a laptop or other connected device, replicating the experience of using a broadband modem and router. Drawbacks of this approach include difficulty using small screens, data caps, and trouble doing more complex activities such as applying for a job that require a traditional computer.
National Broadband Plan—as requested by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released the National Broadband Plan in March 2010. The plan describes a multipart strategy for increasing US households’ broadband adoption rate from 65 percent in 2010 to 90 percent by 2020. At that time, the FCC envisioned that at least 100 million homes would have access to networks in which the speed of data downloads exceeds 100 Mbps. As of 2015, the FCC estimates that about 80 percent of American homes have access to a broadband connection that delivers 25 Mbps or better. Meeting the goals of the plan will increase the number of households with access to the information and services that consumers can use to connect to the world outside of their home. As the services that are available over the Internet increase, consumers who lack broadband risk being isolated from any potential benefits.
Usability—usability is a key indicator of quality for any consumer technology or product. The term refers to the extent to which consumers can use a product or service to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a given context.
The National Broadband Plan proposed a number of digital literacy recommendations to help more people use broadband technologies effectively. The plan addressed usability with policies designed to build the skills and confidence of users so that they could use particular technologies. Another approach focused on improving user interface design. The ultimate goal is universal usability, meaning that effective use of interfaces and systems is easy for everyone in a wide variety of situations.
The plan did not directly address the impact of user interface design and usability on technology adoption, but that issue has drawn attention from federal agencies, particularly as it relates to health care. For example, the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology established a Health IT Usability initiative. Its purpose was to provide technical guidance in developing standards for assessing the usability of electronic health records and related technology.
Privacy—consumers’ use of broadband Internet access raises privacy issues, which the FCC has addressed in a rulemaking proceeding that seeks to give consumers greater control over their personal information (see this chapter’s section Privacy Protections in the Use of Telecommunication and Utility Services and Chapter 11, Financial Services and Consumer Products, for more information on digital privacy and security).
Evolving broadband speeds—consumers’ expectations for higher broadband speeds and suppliers’ ability to provide these higher speeds continue to evolve, and the disparity between broadband deployment in urban and rural areas persists. As part of its 2016 Broadband Progress Report, the FCC reaffirmed its definition of broadband as having a download capability of 25 Mbps and an upload capability of 3 Mbps, a standard that the FCC will likely continue to update as the technology changes. The FCC also has established minimum speeds in the context of its federal subsidies for broadband deployment and adoption: 10 Mbps/1 Mbps for both its Connect America Fund (which subsidizes broadband deployment in remote areas) and the Lifeline Program (which subsidizes rates to encourage adoption by income households).
Broadband Internet Services: Policy
Creating universal, affordable, high-speed broadband
Policymakers should implement policies to make universal, affordable, and truly high-speed broadband a national reality.
Policymakers should implement an aggressive national broadband deployment strategy that includes specific targets in terms of broadband penetration, coverage, and usage, and establishes the US as the world leader in providing all of its citizens with access to the fastest and most affordable broadband services.
Policymakers should ensure that every household has access to affordable and reliable high-speed broadband.
Policymakers should encourage innovative approaches for the delivery of high-speed broadband services.
Policymakers should provide tax credits and other incentives to citizens, government entities, educational institutions, and businesses to adopt broadband technologies. These efforts should encourage adoption by underserved populations, including those who face financial or physical impediments, such as older people and individuals with disabilities or low incomes.
Policymakers should fund and promote large-scale pilot projects that provide high-speed connectivity to underserved populations—including those who face financial or physical impediments, such as older people and individuals with disabilities or low incomes, enabling them to gain access to promising tele-health, personal-health, and independent-living technologies.
Policymakers should ensure that:
- all residential consumers have the ability to choose from among multiple, competing broadband networks;
- consumers with low incomes have affordable broadband options;
- the marketplace includes low switching barriers so that consumers are unimpeded in their ability to change service providers;
- consumers have the right to use their Internet connections to gain access to, use, send, receive, or offer any lawful content or services they choose over the Internet;
- consumers can use any applications or services made available over the Internet or in connection with access to the Internet;
- consumers have the right to attach any device to the operator’s broadband network as long as the device does not damage or degrade other subscribers’ use of the network; and
- adequately funded programs are available to support consumers, including older adults, who need assistance to adopt and benefit from new technologies and devices.
Transparency and accountability
Policymakers should ensure the collection and public reporting of timely, standardized information that provides a full and accurate measure of US broadband deployment and specifically addresses the availability, prices, adoption, and interoperability of broadband Internet access networks.
Regulators should undertake a comprehensive review of prior decisions and policies that have adversely affected the deployment, subscription, and use of broadband and take appropriate actions to reverse such decisions or policies or otherwise mitigate their effects.
The Federal Communications Commission should establish a national initiative to focus on improving the design of user interfaces and on creating broadband-enabled technologies that are more universally usable.
Policymakers at all levels of government should look for opportunities to promote and improve the usability of broadband-enabled technologies.