Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities

Some 65% of Americans have home broadband access, putting the United States in the lower middle of developed countries in terms of rates of household adoption. But this number hides the concentration of non-adopters among the elderly and in low-income communities. Among households with incomes below $25,000, the percentages are flipped: 65% lack broadband connections.  As the Internet has become the primary mediator of job searches, education, and public services, non-adoption has emerged as an important driver of economic marginalization. With the expansion of online services, lack of access has raised the relative costs of a wide range of activities, from shopping, to navigating city services, to communicating with family members—creating a de facto non-adoption tax.

The high price of broadband services in the United States is the most obvious obstacle to wider use and a critical factor in every study conducted on the subject. However, the SSRC’s most recent work on this issue—work which is summarized in the report, “Broadband Adoption in Low Income Communities”—provides support for the idea that reduced access is about more than money.  Put simply, cost is not a sufficient factor to explain—or an adequate lever to address—the gap in home broadband adoption. Communities with a large percentage of non-adopters face multiple, overlapping challenges to broadband use, from skill and language barriers, to problems with providers, to overburdened community intermediaries and overstretched public Internet access points.  However, the phone survey methods used by the FCC, NTIA, and other organizations to access adoption have not been able to examine these issues in much detail or depth.

The SSRC’s new report is different.  Commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to analyze the factors shaping low rates of adoption of home broadband services in low-income and other marginalized communities, the study is one of the only large-scale qualitative investigations of barriers to adoption in the U.S., and complements recent FCC survey research on adoption designed to inform the National Broadband Plan. The study draws on some 170 interviews of non-adopters, community-access providers, and other intermediaries conducted across the US in late 2009 and early 2010.  Some general conclusions:

  • Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it—and that residents of low-income communities know this.
  • Price is only one factor shaping the fragile equilibrium of home broadband adoption, and price pressures go beyond the obvious challenge of high monthly fees. Hardware costs, hidden fees, billing transparency, quality of service, and availability are major issues for low-income communities.
  • Libraries and other community organizations fill the gap between low home adoption and high community demand, and provide a number of other critical services, such as training and support.  These support organizations are under severe pressure to meet community connectivity needs, leading to widespread perceptions of a crisis in the provider community.

The goal of this study is primarily descriptive—answering the FCC’s need for a robust account of non-adoption in low-income (and other marginalized) communities. This descriptive function is especially important, in our view, in a context in which the well connected have a tendency to universalize their own experiences and so assume ubiquitous access and technical fluency.

And yet, some issues were raised with enough regularity to suggest wider policy and regulatory approaches to mitigating problems of access in low-income communities.  The study points to a number of specific conclusions and recommendations, of which we will mention three:

  • Un-adoption—the loss of home broadband service—is a serious and under-recognized problem in the larger broadband dynamic.  In our sample of non-adopters, 22% were un-adopters. Income fluctuations played the most significant roles in respondents’ accounts of un-adoption, but unpredictable service costs and opaque billing practices also figured frequently.  Closer investigation of these practices and their effects is needed, but our work suggests that modest, consumer-friendly changes in these practices might improve the sustainability of broadband use in these communities.
  • Complaints about quality of service, billing transparency, and more basic issues of availability were nearly universal in our respondent pool. Doubts about the accuracy of service provider claims of coverage were particularly troubling given the reliance of government agencies on those providers for data. We also found significant differences between theoretical coverage and practical, accessible service in many communities.  Our study did not examine these issues in depth but, in our view, the frequency of such complaints clearly signals the need for further investigation.
  • Cost-shifting onto community organizations needs to be met with additional funding for those organizations. Government agencies, school systems, and large employers increasingly privilege web-based access to many basic services, including job and benefits applications. Because many of the constituents for these services have limited Internet access and/or limited Internet proficiency, these measures often shift human and technical support costs onto libraries and other community organizations that do provide access, in-person help, and training.  Fuller funding of these intermediaries is the best means of assuring a meaningful broadband safety net and a stronger pathway to adoption in these communities.

Download the Full Report

Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities

Published on: Thursday, March 04, 2010