The NY Times has reported that the FCC, unimpressed by the current penetration rate of broadband access (at 68%) have contracted with the Geek Squad & Microsoft to teach us poor dopes how to use the Internet.
The story cited three reasons for our dismal performance: 1, the cost of computers and Internet access; 2, not knowing how to use a computer; and 3, "not understanding why the Internet is relevant." Research does support #1 as a reason, but not the other two - what competent research shows is that the other main reasons for not subscribing to broadband access is lack of availability where people want to use it, or that people's online activities don't need the higher capacity (and higher cost) of broadband.
Well, hiring the Geek Squad certainly isn't going to help much with reason 1 (particularly after the FCC raises online access fees to cover the cost of the contract). I suppose the Geek Squad could help with claimed reasons #2 and #3, but do they need to?
A May 2011 report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project (a highly competent source of much research on Internet and online uses) reports that roughly 80% of American adults currently use the Internet, and that level has been fairly constant since 2007. Internet use is widespread, with only two demographic groups reporting less than 63% adoption rates (those over 65, and those with less than High School education). And I just have to wonder how effective the Geek Squad will be with those two groups. Further, a long history of Pew studies also shows that Americans know the relevance of the Internet, as they report growing and regular use of an expanding range of online activities.
So let's say that maybe we still need to help ramp up Internet use and adoption of broadband access. The FCC's announced plan is that the Geek Squad will partner with service organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Goodwill, and 4-H in 20 cities to offer courses in basic computer literacy. After a brief thought as to how helpful 4-H will be in cities (after all, it's aimed at rural and farming families), consider this statistic (again from Pew) - about 90% of pre-teens and 95% of teens already use the internet regularly. Geek Squad reps in Boys and Girls Clubs are likely to find that the kids know more about how to use the Internet and what they can use it for than they do. Moreover that age group is also very likely to own multiple devices connectable to the Internet (cellphones 75%, computers 70%, and game consoles 80%). American youth don't need courses in computer literacy. If anybody does, it's the elderly - but how many hang around the Boys and Girls Clubs? The effort seems misdirected (at best).
Anyway, a lack of computer literacy really hasn't been a problem for a decade or more. If there is a problem, it's much more likely to be lack of access (or affordable access), or lack of interest (lack of appropriately valued content or services). Microsoft's efforts are more credible and helpful, as they're emphasizing job-search training through schools and libraries.
If the FCC and the government want to help promote Internet and broadband use, they'd likely be much more successful if they subsidized access (or even allowed Internet Service Providers to engage in a bit of cross-subsidization), or encouraged getting a wider variety of content and services online. As it is, all the plan does is amply illustrate the level of ignorance and lack of common sense at the FCC (and the NY Times for buying the story). That, or the lengths they'll go to in order to manufacture a 'crisis' to address - as an excuse to raid the Universal Service Fund and TV spectrum so that they can reward their friends.
Sources - A 'Contrived' Broadband Crisis, Indeed. Pet Putman's HDTVexpert.com
F.C.C. Expanding Efforts to Connect More Americans to Broadband, NY Times