Mass. city becomes testing ground for boosting broadband adoption

UMass trying to create model for increasing broadband use in underserved urban areas

Increasing broadband adoption isn't just about building out networks in underserved areas -- it's also about telling people who don't use broadband what they're missing.

Increasing broadband adoption isn't just about building out networks in underserved areas -- it's also about showing people who don't use broadband what they're missing.

To that end, the federal government has awarded the University of Massachusetts in Lowell a grant of $783,000 to design and implement a broadband promotion program in Lowell, Mass. The grant awarded is part of the $4 billion in broadband stimulus funding released by the government this past summer. The program's key initiative will be to build 11 public computer centers that UMass Lowell estimates will "serve 6,650 new broadband users and add 7,500 additional broadband subscribers" in Lowell and the Merrimack Valley area.The broadband stimulus funding timeline explained 

Robert Forrant, a professor in the Department of Regional Economic and Social Development at UMass Lowell, says the program will have three major areas of focus: working with local youth organizations to help students get after-school broadband access; working with senior centers to help educate elderly residents in the Merrimack Valley area about the uses of broadband technology; and building the 11 computer centers.

"Our goal is to democratize broadband usage," Forrant says. "By creating a larger and wider infrastructure, the project will hopefully help the economic development of the region. If more people have access to high-speed Internet communications, the better the region will be equipped for what we hope will be an economic revival in the future."

A survey conducted last year by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that broadband adoption has been relatively low among low-income Americans (35% broadband adoption rate); Americans living in rural communities (46%);  African Americans (46%); and senior citizens (30%). The survey found that 63% of all Americans reported having broadband services in their homes.

From this perspective, Lowell makes for a compelling ground for testing broadband adoption policies. Not only is it a fairly ethnically diverse city, but roughly 10% of its 105,000 citizens are 65 or older. Lowell is also a blue-collar town whose median household income of roughly $39,000 per year is significantly less than Massachusetts' overall median household income of $53,700 per year.

"Lowell and the Merrimack Valley area lag behind the rest of the state in terms of many socio-economic factors," says Dr. Carol McDonough, an economics professor at UMass Lowell. "So a lot of our program will be targeting low-income residents and seniors because we feel if these people become more aware of the benefits of broadband they will be more likely to access it."

Another key initiative of the project is to connect Lowell's entire downtown area to a public Wi-Fi network. This will allow students who don't have access to broadband at home to take their computers into coffee shops or restaurants and connect to the Web. Additionally, a public Wi-Fi network will give a boost to businesses in the downtown area that may have had trouble affording a broadband connection on their own.

"Students do have access to broadband in the Lowell high school, but we want to extend it to give them broader usage during the day," Forrant says. "In spite of how much connectivity there might be in Massachusetts, you have a lot of areas where people might not have connectivity in their homes."

In the end, Forrant is hoping that the UMass Lowell project can act as a model for other urban areas to follow. He says that the project's biggest strength lies in its partnerships with local community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and several senior centers.

"We're looking at taking a variety of approaches to develop best practices and to see what works," he says. "This will help us understand what public universities in urban areas will be able to do in this field. We've got great strength that we can deliver on by working within the community."

Learn more about this topic

Government sets broadband stimulus funding timeline

Government releases $4 billion in broadband stimulus funds

White House awards first broadband stimulus grants

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