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The SSRC was 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 resulting study is one of the only large-scale qualitative investigations of barriers to adoption in the US, and complements recent FCC survey research on adoption designed to inform the 2010 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. At the broadest level, it finds that:

  • Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it—and 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 study identifies a range of factors that make broadband services hard to acquire and harder to maintain in such communities. Some of these issues could be addressed relatively easily, such as greater transparency with respect to fees and billing, or better bundling of services to suit the communication needs of low-income groups. Even incremental improvements in home adoption would be enormously valuable. But the study also suggests that libraries and other intermediaries will remain central institutions for broadband access in many communities, and consequently for the forms of social and economic participation—from job searches to education—that increasingly take place online.