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Digital Nation: Progress in the Making, but Still a Long Way to Go

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A recent report by the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration confirmed what many of us have known and been talking about all year -- we've made tremendous strides over the past ten years toward increasing home broadband adoption, but we've still got a long ways yet to go, especially when it comes to getting the word out to communities of color.

In addition to the FCC's Broadband Study and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies' Minority Broadband Adoption Report, this latest venture by NTIA demonstrates that creating a digital nation is an important goal to which we ascribe, though our digital nation is still divided along the lines of race and socio-economic status.

One of the interesting things to note about this report is that the usage gap between many Americans -- what we comfortably refer to as the digital divide -- is not always predicated along lines of income and education alone. In fact, this report revealed that even when all things are equal, African Americans still tend to adopt broadband at home less frequently than their non-Hispanic white peers.

By the same token, adoption gaps along ethnic or racial lines are further stratified when taking into consideration one's geography. For instance, the adoption gap between rural and urban households is 7 percent; but that figure increases to 10 percent when you compare adoption habits between non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks.

Additional findings in the report confirm that, other factors notwithstanding, affordability, digital literacy and relevance are some of the key indicators of a person's likely adoption habits.

So, what does this all mean, particularly in a country that is actively in pursuit of the opportunity to begin implementing its National Broadband Plan? What does it mean for a nation struggling through economic downturn, awaiting a fresh new chance at ensuring that all Americans can reap the benefits of broadband opportunities awaiting us on the horizon?

Well, first, as Lawrence Strickling, NTIA's Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information aptly noted, "what the analysis shows is that we must have very targeted programs for specific populations."

The key to increased home broadband adoption is not a one size fits all approach. Different populations have different needs, and the only way to truly demonstrate the value proposition of broadband is by meeting people where they are and demonstrating the tangible benefits of broadband to their everyday lives. What works for me, might not work for you or the next person. But it's incumbent upon us to employ tailored solutions to making sure that the message of broadband's value is translated through mediums and in languages that everybody can understand.

What's more, considering the wide array of interests at stake in improving America's broadband equation, we need to focus more keenly on the areas of opportunity to spur increased adoption activity. We absolutely cannot and should not continue to allow ourselves to be led down the endless rabbit hole of convoluted debate around nuanced technicalities. We can't be distracted by the veritable Pandora's box of 'shoulda, coulda, wouldas' around divisive issues that ultimately detract from our ability to focus first and foremost on universal broadband adoption.

According to Commerce, home broadband adoption has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, jumping from nine percent in 2001 to sixty-four percent in 2009. And yet, while 96 percent of all Americans have access to broadband at home, only 65 percent choose to actually adopt and use it.

If I've said it once, I've said it 1,000 times -- broadband is the great equalizer. It bears the tremendous potential to change outcomes and transform the way people lives their lives. But it only works if we adopt it, if we learn how to wield the power of a wireless, fiber, DSL or cable connection for our best benefit, and can learn to be creators and not just consumers of this powerful technology.

The NTIA study shows that we're definitely making some strides in the right direction, but as always, there is more, much more, to be done.

We're making progress, but we've still got a long way to go toward making America a truly Digital Nation.
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