Slow broadband adoption needs a real-time solution
Ten years ago, policies to close the digital divide focused exclusively on connection. While making broadband available is an obvious first step, getting people to use it as a way of life takes more than bringing it to their doorsteps.
A recent Pew Research survey shows that 7 percent of all American adults do not use the internet, which equates to a whopping 23 million people. Pew also reports that 71 percent of the adults without home broadband today say they are not interested in having it in the future. This adoption gap is approximately three times larger than the availability gap, but the availability gap is currently commanding lawmakers’ attention.
Internet non-adoption is strongly connected to age, educational attainment and household income. Households earning less than $30,000 a year are 14 times more likely to report they are not using the internet than those earning $75,000 or more (14 percent versus 1 percent).
There is a significant swath of low-income Americans who qualify for $0 programs to gain internet access but haven’t taken advantage of them. Beyond subscription cost, offline consumers increasingly cite a lack of “relevance” and other factors for not adopting high-speed service. A lack of digital readiness — understanding how and why to use the internet — is often the culprit for non-adoption. This is a clear signal that we have a problem that can’t be solved with money alone.
Laptops, computers and tablets are also a barrier to broadband adoption. Roughly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (24 percent) say they don’t own a smartphone. About four-in-10 adults with lower incomes do not have a desktop or laptop computer (41 percent). A federally-funded, permanent broadband benefit is absolutely needed to help financially vulnerable Americans afford broadband service, but programs aimed at increasing internet adoption must also tackle the digital obstacles faced by many of these low-income families, such as lack of a home computer and insufficient internet know-how.
The pandemic made it clear that everyone needs broadband. For those without it, job opportunities were out of reach, education was put on hold and health check-ups were missed. Seven out of 10 employed Americans say they could not perform their jobs without a home internet connection, which means the majority of jobs are not an option for Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide. More than 55 million students had to switch to online learning due to shut-downs last year, but 17 million children lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning.
More than 40 percent of people skipped medical care in the early months of the pandemic, but three-quarters of doctor, urgent care and ER visits could have been handled remotely. We now have to teach people to choose high-speed internet in key areas of everyday life. Without action to encourage broadband adoption, gaps in utilization will stand in the way of achieving true digital equity and inclusion.
Over the coming weeks and months, Congress, industry and stakeholders must work together to formulate a multi-pronged approach that not only tackles broadband availability and affordability, but also the accessibility component of the digital divide.
The National Urban League’s Lewis Latimer Plan shines light on a path to achieve digital readiness throughout every community. The plan proposes that a national Office of Digital Equity be established to help coordinate training targeted to the demographic groups with the lowest rates of adoption, as well as issue reports on the effectiveness of the different digital readiness strategies. It also urges an Online Digital Readiness Portal to provide every American with access to free, age-appropriate content that teaches digital skills and enhances digital readiness.
The Biden administration should undertake these clear action-items now, in tandem with efforts to address the availability portion of the digital divide through the infrastructure package currently moving through Congress.
One thing is clear: The public and private sectors must work together to ensure that all three parts of the digital divide — availability, affordability and adoption — are addressed. Everyone’s help is needed to give disconnected Americans the help they need. Because living without broadband access is no longer just inconvenient…it’s detrimental to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Kim Keenan is co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance.