August 31, 2007

Grumpy Broadband Users Call into WYPR’s Marc Steiner Show

I appeared yesterday on the Marc Steiner Show, the noontime slot at WYPR, Baltimore’s public radio station. Also appearing as a guest on the show was Alec Ross of One Economy and the topic was issues in broadband adoption and policy. You can listen to the show at the link above, where you’ll hear us hold forth on two questions: What does broadband mean to people’s social, civic, and economic lives? Where does the U.S. stand relative to the rest of the world in broadband adoption and infrastructure?

The short answer to the first question is that broadband is a key enabling conduit to participation in the digital society. That means getting consumer information, news, engaging with government programs, and building the skills to get well-paying jobs in the global economy. On the second question, the short answer is: not so hot. Our rankings relative to the rest of the world in broadband adoption have fallen in recent years, and our information infrastructure is second rate. (More from me on that topic here.)

This kind of discussion is big fun for policy wonks like Alec and me, but things got really interesting when the lines opened up to callers. Most calls focused on the hassles in getting and maintaining a broadband connection at home. Admittedly, a half dozen callers on a radio show does not a random sample make, but the discussion made me think of our typology of users of information technology. Some callers were “connected but hassled”; they had broadband, but it behaved badly and help from service providers was either non-existent or unsatisfactory. Others had to endure dial-up connections because they could not get broadband service where they live. Several callers were from rural areas, although one lived a mile from neighbors who have broadband service.

I got a sense from the discussion that a lot of broadband users are weary with dealing with trouble-shooting home high-speed connections, an attitude exacerbated by the high expectations people have when they sign up for home broadband. It’s as if they expect their blind date with broadband to be Arthur Fonzerelli, but it turns out to be Ralph Malph.

I shared one thing in common with host Marc Steiner; maddening Catch-22s in dealing with connection problems that our providers should be able to address. (Marc is having problem with Comcast; I am having problems with Verizon.) As I upload this blog posting from a coffee shop near my home (since I can’t get my new router to work at home), I think there needs to be another category for the Pew Internet typology – the Embittered Influential. Marc Steiner and I both, I believe, fit in that group.