Don’t confuse social services groups with ISP sales departments

by Steve Blum • , ,

It’s been a bad few weeks for so called broadband adoption programs in California. First, the shotgun marriage between Frontier Communications and the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) turned into a messy divorce, having only reached a tiny fraction of its “aspirational” target of 200,000 new broadband subscribers.

Then the California Public Utilities Commission launched an effort to recover $244,000 from a Los Angeles County adoption program, that was funded by a regional broadband consortia grant from the California Advanced Services Fund. That program had an even loftier goal: it was called California’s One Million New Internet User Coalition (NIU Coalition). A CPUC investigation resulted in allegations of “false reports” submitted by the group, regarding time spent – and billed – training residents of low income communities in the mysteries of the digital world.

These programs are intended to get more people to use Internet-delivered services and subscribe to broadband service. In theory, that’s what “adoption” means. It’s a marketing metric that’s expressed as the percentage of potential customers who buy a particular category of product or service. To increase the adoption rate, you need to close more sales. Period.

The problem is that the non-profit corporations and community based organisations that chase “adoption” grants are not well equipped to meet Internet subscriber sales quotas. Instead, they tend to focus on advocacy or education – digital literacy, as it’s sometimes called. Or they simply give computers and Internet access away. That might be worthy thing, but at best it’s an indirect way to drive broadband subscriptions.

Computer giveaways, free Internet access and digital literacy classes are not sales tools. Those sorts of programs play a role in connecting more people to Internet-delivered services and closing the digital divide. But you can’t measure their success by the number of new subscriptions they generate. Trying to do that just leads to acrimony when ridiculous targets aren’t met. There are better ways to hold educational and social services organisations accountable than by pretending they are the sales department for Internet service providers.