February 21, 2013 - 8:33 am
By Diana Coho | Consumer Affairs and Outreach Specialist

The Consumer Affairs and Outreach Division of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau serves as the FCC’s face with the American public.  One of my recent outreach assignments was to deliver a presentation to the monthly forum of the Lifetime Learning Institute (LLI) of Northern Virginia, which provides continuing education opportunities to older Americans at the Annandale Campus of the Northern Virginia Community College.

Older Americans are an important group for the FCC to reach since we believe that access to high-speed Internet service – broadband – can improve the quality of life for all Americans.  But many of the older Americans we routinely interact with are less likely than the rest of the country to subscribe to broadband, own a computer, or have the skills that are needed to use the Internet – commonly referred to as “digital literacy” skills.  In addition, we find that many older Americans don’t believe the Internet is relevant to their daily lives and are concerned about taking on new expenses when living on low or fixed incomes.  Vision and hearing loss or other challenges can make it difficult for older Americans to use a computer, and adaptive technologies pose a  steeper learning curve.  Many older Americans are also concerned about possible fraud and identity theft in cyberspace.

But research shows that once older Americans learn how to use the Internet, they quickly begin using email, going online to do research, make appointments, shop, take courses, manage bank accounts and electronic medical records, and communicate with friends and family – increasingly through social media sites and techniques.  Older Americans are also buying more cell phones, using e-readers and tablets, and adapting to advances in telemedicine.  I was heartened to find out that the Annadale group was very tech savvy!

Approximately 175 members attend the Institute’s monthly, one-hour forum which features a guest speaker.  I was told to be prepared for an enthusiastic, very well-educated group (many of them former federal employees) that typically asks a lot of really good questions.

Our discussion began with an overview of the FCC’s mission, organization and leadership, the roles and responsibilities of our bureaus and offices, basic concepts of managing and sharing increasing demand for spectrum, working with industry, other agencies, and the public to ensure access for all Americans while promoting competition, innovation, and fairness.  I shared many of the FCC’s online tools with the group such as the Spectrum Dashboard, the Consumer Broadband Test, the FCC License View and the Calendar of Events page with upcoming and archived webcasts.  For example, the FCC is hosting its first Digital Literacy Day for older Americans on April 24, 2013. Information on this event will be available online the FCC homepage as we get closer to that date.

Ed McKnight, Lifelong learning Institute and Diana Coho, FCC

During the Q & A several hands shot up as I learned firsthand how well informed and passionate the Institute’s members are about the topics of the day.  They raised lots of thoughtful questions such as the FCC’s role in addressing communication challenges during  major storms, reception issues, loud commercials, robocalls, prison phone rates, indecency and other consumer related complaints, the Do Not Call registry, how to submit comments, tower siting, availability of services that rely on fiber optics, work with international organizations,  and more. 

I was asked about how the FCC affects their everyday life including topics such as licensing, ham radio, rules concerning TV and radio stations, wireless technologies including cell phones, tablets, laptops and even today’s electronic keys, and keyless ignitions, and garage door openers.  The group was interested in the FCC’s role in health care advances, in combating “dead zones” and in program content and indecency.

As always, the rewards of reaching out to this unique and special group taught me more than I could have imagined – hopefully they learned something too.