John Horrigan

Statement to the Reimagine New York State Commission

Inclusion is at the foundation of communications policy in this country. The Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 both rest on the notion that advanced communications networks should be universally available and affordable. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that there is still more to be done to adapt these policy principles to the internet age. In just two decades, having the internet at home has gone from being a toy for hobbyists to an indispensable tool for commerce, education, and connectedness.

Adapting Jobs Programs for Today and Tomorrow

“Middle-skill” jobs make up a large portion of the market, has positions to fill, but suffers from a dearth of trained workers—especially when it comes to digital skills. Digital skills refer to a person’s ability to use digital tools, applications, and networks to access and manage information. Pandemic-driven unemployment will only put the middle-skill issue into sharper relief.

“Middle-skill” jobs make up a large portion of the market, has positions to fill, but suffers from a dearth of trained workers—especially when it comes to digital skills.

Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a near-total shutdown of the U.S. school system, forcing more than 55 million students to transition to home-based remote learning practically overnight. In most cases, that meant logging in to online classes and accessing lessons and assignments through a home internet connection. Sadly, that was not an option for children in one out of three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households.

Baltimore's Digital Divide: Gaps in Internet Connectivity and the Impact on Low-income City Residents

Large numbers of Baltimore households lack two essential tools for getting online: wireline broadband service at home and access to a computer. According to the 2018 American Community Survey, 96,000 households in Baltimore (40.7%) did not have wireline internet service, such as cable, fiber, or digital subscriber line service. And some 75,000 Baltimore City households, or one in three, do not have either a desktop or laptop computer.

Measuring the Gap

As policymakers consider digital inclusion solutions, understanding the root of the problem is important. There are a number of ways people’s decisions not to subscribe to broadband could play out. Older adults – especially those on fixed incomes – may find the monthly fee burdensome but also struggle with the skills to use the internet. Low-income households, particularly those with children, likely understand the internet’s importance, but they may struggle with service affordability.

Broadband and Cities

New analysis of broadband adoption in a selection of cities shows a strong relationship between low household broadband adoption levels and poverty. The analysis also shows that rising economic tides in cities has little to do with recent growth in broadband adoption – but that declines in poverty rates do.

Skills training is the key to ending the digital divide

The Technology Policy Institute conducted a survey of 1,275 people on Comcast’s Internet Essentials service to explore what having service at home means to low-income households. The research shows that once people subscribe to broadband, school-age children use home access for schoolwork and streaming educational media. Their parents also quickly get hooked, using the internet to search for jobs and to manage their lives more efficiently.

Digital Divide Isn’t Just a Rural Problem

The digital divide – the “haves” and “have nots” when it comes to internet access and use – is an abiding concern for telecommunication and internet policymakers at all levels of government. The Federal Communications Commission’s focus on deployment means policymakers miss an entirely different dimension of the problem – broadband adoption. Ensuring the ubiquity of high-speed networks is a laudable goal. But if a lot of people are not subscribing even when networks pass their residences, that’s a different problem. Analysis of broadband adoption data shows that:

Reaching the Unconnected: Benefits for kids and schoolwork drive broadband subscriptions, but digital skills training opens doors to household internet use for jobs and learning

Not so long ago, “closing the digital divide” primarily meant getting people online, and a steady upward trend in adoption is evidence of progress on that front. Yet gaps in broadband adoption remain – particularly for low-income households – and closing those gaps is about more than simply offering a low-cost internet service. Even with the availability of low-cost offers, it remains a challenge to encourage the remaining disconnected people to sign up for broadband service.