The telecom industry seems to be taking increased interest in how to get more people to adopt broadband, as an FCC broadband adoption workshop on Thursday illustrated.

Two of the biggest reasons more people who could get broadband don’t subscribe to it are cost and relevancy – and service providers at yesterday’s workshop talked about what they’re doing to address both of those concerns.

ToledoTel’s digital literacy program
ToledoTel, a small telco in rural Washington state, wanted to increase broadband adoption in its territory because management was disappointed that only 40% of customers subscribed to the service, even though it was available throughout 100% of ToledoTel’s territory.

With the help of a broadband adoption grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and through a partnership with two tribal groups, the company put together a digital literacy and outreach program that has been quite successful.

“We wanted to cast a wide net,” said Dale Merten, chief operating officer for ToledoTel, on a panel at Thursday’s workshop about industry best practices to increase broadband adoption.

ToledoTel offered free installation and free broadband for two years to people who didn’t already have a broadband subscription and a free laptop to people who completed at least 40 hours of classroom training. The program even included transportation to the classroom for those who needed it.

An instructor from a local community college was enlisted to provide the classroom training and Merten credits the teacher with helping to make the program a success. “The teacher was able to take people who were scared or humiliated . . . and they kept coming back for more,” he said.

ToledoTel learned two key things from the trial. One was that mailers and radio advertising didn’t work but grass roots efforts did. If someone from ToledoTel could “look a person in the eye” he or she could get that person’s attention, Merten said.

Another important lesson was that “broadband adoption is a very personal thing,” Merten observed. “What intrigues me might not [intrigue you].”

By meeting with people face-to-face ToledoTel was able to tailor training to provide people with what they wanted to learn. Social media and e-bay were among the topics covered, along with more traditional topics such as Microsoft Office.

ToledoTel’s goal was to get 750 new subscribers. The company already has reached 600.

Sprint offering popular with low-income users
When Sprint launched Broadband2Go under its Virgin Mobile brand, the company learned quite quickly that some people were using it as their only broadband service, said Elaine Divelbliss, director and senior counsel for Sprint on the industry best practices panel.

An important aspect of the service is that it is a prepaid offering that includes unlimited service and customers can pay by the month or the day, paying only for days or months when they need service. The daily price is five dollars and the monthly price is $40.

“In rural communities it was a very popular device,” said Divelbliss of the smartphone supporting the offering.

Sprint also targets low-income users through its Assurance brand which offers subsidized wireless voice service for qualified households through the Universal Service Lifeline program– and as Divelbliss quipped, “It didn’t take long to look at the peanut butter and the chocolate and realize they should go together.”

With that idea in mind, Sprint applied for and received funding to participate in the FCC’s pilot test of a broadband low-income program using the same type of wireless device that supports Broadband2Go.

The program, which will kick off in May, will test four different products – two in which the customer will get free service but pay for the device and two in which people will get the device free but will pay for service.






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