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Rural Broadband and the Universal Service Fund: Do We Fix the Digital Divide with More Cat Videos?

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The latest episode of the Technology Policy Institute’s podcast Two Think Minimum looks at the broad issues of internet access through the Universal Service Fund (USF) and rural broadband programs. During the podcast, TPI Fellow Sarah Oh and TPI Senior Fellow and President Scott Wallsten delve into the history and efficacy of these programs and analyze how we may be able to get the remaining portion of the population online.

Since the Universal Service Fund was established in 1996, “$100 billion has been spent on four programs,” explains Dr. Oh. The conversation delves into how and where this $100 billion has gone and why it has been such a challenge to connect everyone in America.

The impetus for universal service is well-intentioned according to Dr. Wallsten, “The idea behind the [Fund] is that we believe that everybody should have access to some minimum level of services. This is a common goal around the world.” The results, however, paint a much different picture because of both altruistic and practical reasons: “We want everyone to have a minimum level of service [and] politicians like to give out money. Both of these [are] definitely in play.”

The conversation moved from the USF generally, into conversations on the specific components of the Fund such as incentives for rural providers, the Lifeline fund for low-income Americans, and the E-rate Program that helps schools and libraries get online.

Ultimately, the largest reason some people choose to stay offline, according to Sarah Oh, is consumer preferences. “Just because [Americans] have deployment, and access is available, the question is, ‘Why aren’t people signing up and paying for [broadband]?’ Even if you lower the price to close to zero, people will still not find any interest or relevance.”

Scott Wallsten concurs, “A top reason [surveys find people choose to stay offline] is that they’re not interested or there’s nothing online that’s useful to them… We’ve decided that getting online is important for society, but being able to renew your driver’s license without going to the DMV is not what gets people online. It’s entertainment and staying in touch with friends and family. Those are the things that get people interested. Now if you can build in all those other civic services on top of that, great, but you’re not going to attract people by promoting those.”

Which brings us back to this post’s title. Is it time to adopt a strategy of getting the last segment of Americans online through cat videos? “More cat videos,” exclaimed Dr. Oh.  Or, more generally, perhaps it’s time to put more focus on demand than we have been.

Find out answers to many of the other pressing questions surrounding the Universal Service Fund and rural broadband programs by listening to the latest episode of Two Think Minimum, which is available now. A transcript of this episode is available on the TPI Blog.