Witnesses say cost, access are largest barriers to broadband adoption

Mattey emphasized that public access available at libraries and schools is not a substitute for providing broadband connections to homes and said lower-income individuals, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities face the most difficulties in obtaining home access.

Mattey, Sass and other witnesses including Howie Hodges of the non-profit One Economy said the lack of digital literacy also hampers adoption, as many individuals must first be educated on how to use the Internet before they can take advantage of its resources.

"We are the de facto digital literacy corps," Sass said. "It's what librarians have been doing for the last 15 years."

To address the cost issue the FCC's National Broadband Plan recommends expanding the Lifeline and Link Up program, which provides discounts to low-income consumers for telephone installation and monthly bills, to include broadband. The recommendation aligns closely with a bill introduced last September by Matsui: H.R. 3646, the Broadband Affordability Act.

Matsui said the bill would ensure that all Americans living in urban and rural areas have access to affordable broadband services and applauded the FCC for including it in the National Broadband Plan. Both Mattey and Sass agreed when asked if the subsidies from the Lifeline program would help spur broadband adoption.

However, ranking member Cliff Stearns, R-Fl., disagreed with Matsui that the program is necessary, noting in his opening statement that broadband is available to 95 percent of American households and that 65 percent of the population is using broadband at home. He argued that non-profit groups like One Economy would help boost educaton and adoption without government involvement.

"We clearly don't have a deployment or adoption problem," Stearn said. "Approximately 12 percent of the country says they don't subscribe to broadband because they can't afford it. We need to be very careful, however, and not act on proposals to expand the Lifeline and Linkup programs to cover broadband unless the FCC improves oversight and puts broadband-specific performance goals and measures in place."

Subcommittee chairman Rich Boucher, D-Va., also expressed concern about the broadband maps used to help states monitor availability and make their case for federal stimulus funds. Boucher said the maps rely almost entirely on carrier data, which is often not verified and may overstate the level of connectivity in a region or locality. 

Laura Taylor, chief policy officer for the non-profit connected nation agreed that the maps are often not reliable, which is why her organization believes it is both necessary and worthwhile to verify broadband availability using a variety of methods including on the ground field tests and consumer surveys.

"[Boucher's] question speaks to the heart of the issue, which is the mapping challenge. It shows how critical the verification process is," Taylor said. "Provider data is good, but not always as granular as it should be. We've found that it is well worth it to verify locally."