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The Benefits of Broadband on Internet Use

Universal broadband Internet probably won’t help people find jobs, but it may improve their health outcomes (and music libraries).

A decision by a D.C. federal appeals court earlier this month allowing telecommunications companies to block users from accessing certain content sparked a major debate over Net neutrality, and now the Federal Communications Commission is fighting to regulate Internet broadband services.

The FCC, which rolled out its National Broadband Plan in March, wants to phase out the Universal Service Fund, a program initially designed to keep telecommunications costs low in rural communities and instead impose a 15 percent tax on current broadband users that would be used to connect rural America to high-speed Internet.

The argument goes like this: Broadband can improve access to education, medical care and public safety, and increase people’s interaction with government agencies. Broadband might even combat unemployment by increasing access to online job postings.

But new research from Jed Kolko of the Public Policy Institute of California finds support for only one of these claims. Broadband Internet, he found, increases the amount of time people spend searching for health-related information.

Kolko writes, “Governments at all levels are pursuing policies to raise broadband adoption, arguing that broadband facilitates desirable or productive online activities, so that there is a social benefit in making broadband more widely available and affordable. Typically, they claim that raising broadband adoption will improve the health, education and employment prospects of their residents.”

He used self-reported data from Forrester Research survey on Internet subscriptions, online activities and offline activities to assess how people who made the shift from dial-up to broadband changed their Internet use. He measured for changes between both 2005-06 and 2004-05 because the percentage of U.S. households with broadband increased rapidly over those time periods, from 18 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2006.

Kolko found that, unsurprisingly, people with broadband were more likely to do every online activity measured by the survey — pay a parking ticket, research a city or log onto Twitter, for example — than dial-up users.

While switching to broadband increased the amount of time people spent researching drug information and medical conditions, it only did so for people who had researched these subjects without broadband. In other words, having broadband didn’t make people who weren’t researching health stuff on dial-up into WebMD regulars.

Getting broadband didn’t increase people’s visits to job and career websites, use of government sites or online tax filing (although it is important to note that his dataset pre-dates the recession). More recent research by Kolko, published in January, suggests that while broadband adoption does lead to economic growth, it doesn’t necessarily benefit local residents, since it doesn’t drive up the employment rate or average pay per employee.

Broadband adoption did, however, increase music downloads and online purchases, and decrease the amount of time people spent playing (offline) video games.

Kolko cautions against interpreting his findings as a cause of these changes: While broadband adoption may drive these changes in behavior, people might also be getting broadband because they want to, say, download more music or spend more time online.

He concludes that for broadband to ultimately affect society, it must change people’s online behaviors. Figuring out whether it does could help policymakers decide if making broadband accessible nationwide is an important step, or if they should instead address people’s unequal access to other goods and services.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Kolko found that switching to broadband had no statistically significant effect on visits to adult sites — but then this was self-reported data.