For more than a decade, I have been writing about the need for governments to turn attention to the challenge of digital adoption, not just building better connections.
Just do a search on my blog for the word “adoption” and you will get see more than 250 posts with such titles as:
- Understanding broadband adoption • November 2010
- Focus on adoption • November 2011
- Increasing digital adoption • June 2015
- To better understand the digital divide • October 2020
- ConnectTO has already failed • February 2021
- The broadband divide’s little secret • April 2021
Last week, I pointed out an important data point about digital engagement from Statistics Canada’s recent report, “Internet use and COVID-19: How the pandemic increased the amount of time Canadians spend online”:
The dramatically lower level of engagement in internet-related activities among unilingual francophones (compared to unilingual anglophones and bilingual Canadians) is an important data point worth further examination. What are the contributing factors? How does this impact service delivery in Quebec for communications services and digital media?
To increase broadband penetration, there are two factors: connections (supply) and adoption (demand). We are spending billions of dollars at all levels of government to improve the quality of connections, but very little is being done to understand the factors that can meaningfully increase digital engagement and adoption.
At the end of the day, I think it because the problem of connections is actually pretty easy to solve. Connecting any location is a problem that can be clearly defined and solved in engineering terms. We know how to do this. Throw enough money at the problem, and shovels will go in the ground to plant fibre optics and build towers.
Moving the needle on increased adoption is a lot harder challenge. It involves research and study and understanding a variety of human factors. Too many people superficially think that increasing adoption is simply a matter of lower prices, but research has shown there are far more factors involved.
I understand their thinking. I used to think that way as well. It was behind my early work in developing a targeted $10 per month broadband service nearly 15 years ago. Such targeted programs help, but there are more factors at play than just price. Fortunately, there are a lot of lessons being learned from these programs that can help inform the development of other solutions.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick answer. The problem of increased broadband adoption can’t be fixed directly by throwing money at it, but we need to undertake more serious research into those factors that stand in the way of people subscribing to broadband.
A new report released yesterday by RBC Economics (“Building Bandwidth: Preparing indigenous youth for a digital future”) says a national skills agenda is required to prepare Indigenous youth for digital future.
Improving the quality of broadband connections is relatively easy; it can be fixed with money. Increasing rates of adoption, improving digital literacy and digital skills is a lot harder.
We need more people (and more research funding) to focus on the harder problem.