John Horrigan

Smartphones help those without broadband get online, but don’t necessarily bridge the digital divide

Courts and regulators have increasingly seen high-speed Internet as a public utility that is as essential to Americans as electricity and water. But many Americans still do not have broadband at home, and some Americans have turned to mobile devices as their primary gateway to the Internet, according to Pew Research Center surveys. But whether smartphones are an adequate substitute is open to question.

Those who depend on their smartphones to go online encounter constraints with data caps and small screens, and the device is not their “go to” tool for personal learning at home. Instead, those with smartphones but not home broadband rely on a kind of “workaround ecosystem” that is a combination of using their mobile devices along with other resources such as computers and Wi-Fi available at public libraries. Some 13% of US adults are “smartphone only” Internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have a home broadband subscription, according to our data from 2015. In 2013, that share was lower, at 8%. This group is more likely to be younger, lower-income, less educated, or black or Hispanic – the same groups that also have lower rates of home broadband adoption, suggesting that some are forgoing high-speed Internet service and depending on their phones instead.

Digital Readiness Gaps

For many years concerns about “digital divides” centered primarily on whether people had access to digital technologies. Now, those worried about these issues also focus on the degree to which people succeed or struggle when they use technology to try to navigate their environments, solve problems, and make decisions.

A recent Pew Research Center report showed that adoption of technology for adult learning in both personal and job-related activities varies by people’s socio-economic status, their race and ethnicity, and their level of access to home broadband and smartphones. Another report showed that some users are unable to make the Internet and mobile devices function adequately for key activities such as looking for jobs. In this report, we use newly released Pew Research Center survey findings to address a related issue: digital readiness. The new analysis explores the attitudes and behaviors that underpin people’s preparedness and comfort in using digital tools for learning as we measured it in a survey about people’s activities for personal learning. The analysis shows there are several distinct groups of Americans who fall along a spectrum of digital readiness from relatively more prepared to relatively hesitant. Those who tend to be hesitant about embracing technology in learning are below average on the measures of readiness, such as needing help with new electronic gadgets or having difficulty determining whether online information is trustworthy. Those whose profiles indicate a higher level of preparedness for using tech in learning are collectively above average on measures of digital readiness.

Trends in visiting public libraries have steadied, and many Americans have high expectations for what their local libraries should offer

Most Americans view public libraries as important parts of their communities, with a majority reporting that libraries have the resources they need and play at least some role in helping them decide what information they can trust.

When asked to think about the things that libraries could do in the future, notable numbers of Americans respond in a way that can be boiled down to one phrase: “Yes, please.” Public libraries, many Americans say, should offer programs to teach people digital skills (80% think libraries should definitely do this) and help patrons learn how to use new creative technologies like 3-D printers (50%). At the same time, 57% of Americans say libraries should definitely offer more comfortable places for reading, working and relaxing. Yet, Americans are also divided on a fundamental question about how books should be treated at libraries: 24% support the idea of moving books and stacks in order to make way for more community- and tech-oriented spaces, while 31% say libraries should not move the books to create such spaces. About four-in-ten think libraries should maybe consider doing so.

Digital Readiness: Nearly one-third of Americans lack the skills to use next-generation “Internet of things” applications

Accelerating technological change is placing a new premium on people’s abilities to navigate the digital landscape.

As the “Internet of things” ushers in powerful new applications in health care, education, government service delivery, and commerce, Americans are asked to share personal data with service providers in ways unforeseen a decade ago. They also have to muster the technical know-how to make Internet-connected devices function.

Yet nearly one-third of Americans are not ready to meet the twin challenges of trust and skills in a society in which digital applications are extending to more corners of our lives. Based on a 2013 national survey of Americans, this report finds that:

  • 29% of adult Americans have low levels of digital readiness, as measured by respondents’ understanding of terms about the Internet and self-reported confidence in using computers or finding information online.
  • Digital readiness is a bigger problem than the digital divide. Some 18% of Americans lack “advanced Internet access,” that is, either broadband at home or a smartphone; 15% are not Internet users at all. Put differently, 70 million Americans are not “digitally ready” for robust online use, nearly twice the number (36 million) of people with no online access.
  • Lack of digital readiness afflicts one in five Americans who have advanced online access. Although non-Internet users necessarily lack digital readiness, 18% of people who have broadband or a smartphone register low levels of digital readiness. These Americans -- possessing the tools but deficient in skills -- exhibit far lower levels of Internet use.

The report also makes policy recommendations for improving Americans’ level of digital readiness. The proposals aim at building the capacity to help Americans use digital applications that will increasingly shape how governments serve citizens. Specifically:

  • Governments should make complementary investments in digital readiness as they roll out new applications.
  • Investments in digital readiness should build on existing programs that promote digital inclusion, such as those funded by the Commerce Department’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, as well as other public-private initiatives.
  • The philanthropic sector should direct investments to digital readiness for all segments of the community, as well as invest in measurement of how digital readiness impacts outcomes.
  • Cities should create “community tech champions” as advocates for digital readiness. Such champions would highlight the need for promoting digital skills for new “Internet of things” applications that the public and private sectors develop.
  • Libraries, who are already the primary curator on programs to encourage digital readiness in many communities, should embrace and expand that role.

[At the Federal Communications Commission in 2009-10, Horrigan led development of the broadband adoption and usage portion of the National Broadband Plan]

Road map to prevent road kill on information superhighway

[Commentary] Too many Americans are not online and, as a nation, we must do more to make sure all of us can take advantage of the digital world.

When the Federal Communications Commission released the National Broadband Plan four years ago, 35 percent of Americans did not have broadband Internet service at home. That gap has narrowed only modestly since then to 30 percent. Globally, the United States ranks a sluggish 16th out of the 34 nations in the developed West in broadband adoption.

I know the numbers well because for years it has been my job to compile and assess them. I decided to conduct an unprecedented study to give a voice in this policy debate to families traveling the path to home Internet connectivity, to ask new broadband adopters themselves how they made it. I did this through a survey of nearly 2,000 low-income families with children who had signed up for broadband through Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which has enrolled over 300,000 low-income families for home broadband since 2011.

The data are striking. Eighty-three percent of new adopters reported their child's school expected them to be online. Fifty percent or more said health insurance companies or government agencies expected it. Sixty-five percent said their bank expected it. The data also show how "social effects" from being immersed in an Internet-savvy community can drive broadband adoption. Fifty percent of new online users say all or most of the people they know have broadband at home. And people with such connections are a third more likely to regularly use the Internet than those without friends and neighbors who are online.

This information gives us a clear playbook for how to tackle the stubborn, final 30 percent shortfall in digital inclusion. First, institutions such as banks, health-care providers, and schools must recognize their own interest in having a fully connected customer base. It's also critical to find ways to connect people who live in "Internet deserts" today -- lacking the kind of plugged in social networks that draw people online and help them see the value in the Web. For them we need more "safe spaces" in schools, libraries, community centers, and non-profits where they can get started negotiating the Web in comfortable local places alongside others who are on the same journey.

Public and private investment has made a good start on this work around the country -- at the Commerce Department, for example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has invested $450 million in public computing centers and sustainable broadband initiatives.

But much of that funding is drying up as The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 expires. We need to find new sources of investment and engagement from all stakeholders to continue this work.

[Horrigan is an independent communications and technology policy consultant]