Research Shows Cost is Biggest Barrier to Broadband Adoption

As federal policymakers consider ways to improve the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline Program, the Benton Foundation shared with them recent research on digital inclusion and broadband adoption. Although realizing a fully inclusive digital society is a multi-faceted endeavor, the research we shared points to the biggest obstacle we face in making sure everyone is connected.

In 2015, Benton Faculty Research Fellow Dr. Colin Rhinesmith traveled the country to visit with local organizations as they try to bridge the digital divide. In the course of his conversations with, and observations of, eight digital inclusion organizations, he identified the four essential activities of successful efforts:

  1. Providing low-cost broadband: Cost continues to be a major barrier to broadband adoption. Successful interventions need to address “ability to pay” rather than “willingness to pay.” While all low-income individuals and families who participated in this study understood the value of broadband connectivity, most explained that cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption. Successful digital inclusion efforts should recognize the role that persistent poverty plays in shaping people’s abilities to access and use computers and the Internet. The findings suggest that more research is needed to understand budgeting issues and other concerns related to people’s experiences living in poverty.
  2. Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services: Many digital inclusion organizations have developed innovative digital literacy training strategies to assist those who do not feel the Internet is relevant to them as well as those who already understand the importance of the Internet to their everyday lives. Many organizations also provide mobile digital literacy training in which they go outside their physical walls to reach people in places that are convenient to them.
  3. Making low-cost computers available: Low-cost or free computers are often just as important as having access to low-cost or free Internet options, particularly for people in low-income communities. Digital inclusion organizations have embraced this reality by refurbishing older computers and making them available to low-income people for free or at a reduced cost. Some digital inclusion organizations also provide ongoing technical support to residents who need the social and technical assistance to keep their computers up and running—and connected online—over time.
  4. Operating public access computing centers: Many digital inclusion organizations also maintain public access computing facilities that allow residents to access technology in places in which they feel comfortable and supported. These spaces also complement the digital literacy classes that are often offered in the same location. Low-income individuals and families value public access computing centers because they are often in convenient locations and have helpful staff that provide them with one-on-one support with computers and broadband Internet access.

In a second paper recently published by Benton, Canadian researchers Michael Haight and Anabel Quan-Haase went past large-scale quantitative data to understand the reasons why some people are not adopting broadband service in the home. Their Digital Inclusion project engaged with individuals who live in low-income housing units located in Southern Ontario, Canada. The aim of the project was to learn first-hand from inhabitants of those units what it meant to be connected or disconnected to the Internet in the context of their lives. There was an emphasis on people's experiences, attitudes, and opinions. This approach allowed for a more nuanced understanding of why low-income individuals have considerably lower rates of Internet adoption. Michael and Anabel find that for many participants in their research, the response ‘no need/no relevance’ was rooted in another barrier such as cost, lack of digital literacy, lack of confidence, and little understanding of what kinds of activities the Internet can facilitate. The study shows that further unpacking the meaning of ‘no need/no relevance’ is critical, as individuals in low-income housing units have a desire to be a part of the digital world. The findings suggest that it is about creating the right conditions in terms of pricing, availability of equipment, technical support, and mentorship.

Dr. Rhinesmith collaborated with Oklahoma State’s Brian Whiteacre in an effort to better understand why some people drop home broadband service after trying it. These households, termed “un-adopters,” comprised 12% of all households without broadband service as of 2013. In comparison with their “never-adopter” counterparts, un-adopters are significantly more likely to cite cost, the potential to use the Internet elsewhere, and the inadequacy of their computer as reasons for their discontinued use. Using national data from the Census Bureau's 2013 Current Population Survey, Colin and Brian assessed the reasons that these households no longer maintain a broadband connection. The findings suggest that to reach un-adopters, subsidized access may be warranted for households with incomes up to $40,000, and that programs on broadband awareness may be most-effectively targeted towards retirees. These results are reinforced with recent data from the FCC’s Low-Income Broadband Pilot Projects, where approximately 22% of those signing up for the program were previous un-adopters. Understanding and engaging un-adopters will be crucial as the FCC's Lifeline program and other adoption-oriented policies move forward. The full findings of this research will soon be published in Telecommunications Policy.

Finally, we shared results of a new Pew Research Center study that finds that the share of Americans with broadband at home has plateaued: It now stands at 67%, down slightly from 70% in 2013. At the same time, more Americans rely only on their smartphones for online access. At one level, the picture in these new data can be viewed benignly by those who are concerned about connectivity and digital divides. Overall, "advanced Internet access” – that is, those with either a smartphone or a home broadband subscription – has changed little since 2013. Some 80% of adults have either a smartphone or a home broadband subscription in 2015, compared with 78% who said this in 2013. Still, the fact that more Americans have only a smartphone for online access at home has consequences for how people get and use information. Those who are “smartphone-dependent” for access do encounter distinct challenges. Previous Pew Research Center findings show that they are more likely than other users to run up against data-cap limits that often accompany smartphone service plans. They also more frequently have to cancel or suspend service due to financial constraints.

The Pew research, written by Dr. John Horrigan and Maeve Duggan, also finds that Americans are increasingly likely to view home broadband service as important to accessing information or carrying out a variety of important tasks. A substantial majority of Americans feel that people without home broadband service are at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with news or information, getting health information, learning new things, accessing government services or engaging in a job search.

As the FCC considers ways to best improve its Lifeline program and support home broadband adoption, these studies all show that the cost of broadband service is the biggest obstacle to overcome.


By Amina Fazlullah.