The Ability to Pay for Broadband

Benton Foundation

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Digital Beat

The Ability to Pay for Broadband


Colin Rhinesmith

According to recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) survey data, roughly 28 million households in the United States still do not use the Internet at home (Goldberg, 2019). In its survey, the NTIA also asked why households did not use the Internet at home, with 58 percent citing a lack of interest as their main reason for being offline and every fifth household (21%) stating that it is too expensive. Out of those who cited cost as their main reason for not having home access, half had annual household incomes lower than $25,000 (Goldberg, 2019). But an aspect that is often missing from Internet use survey data is the complexity of potential reasons why households might think they have no need or no interest in home Internet access and how this is often closely intertwined with their ability to afford a home Internet connection.

In our recent paper, published in a special issue of Communications Research and Practice, we present findings from two separate studies on digital inclusion in the United States that sought to gain a deeper understanding of the ability of low-income individuals to spend their money on wired broadband internet connections at home. We believe the findings from the studies can be useful to policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders interested in developing effective digital inclusion and broadband adoption policies.

Bianca C. Reisdorf

The first study includes data from Rhinesmith’s 2016 research, published by the Benton Foundation, titled Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Initiatives, which used qualitative research at eight research sites in seven communities across the US. The sites included nonprofit community-based organizations that work with low-income individuals and families. The research focused on learning from the organizations, their partners, and the individuals and families that relied on their services to understand how the organizations provided access to low-cost Internet options and digital literacy training.

The second study utilizes qualitative and quantitative data from Reisdorf’s Broadband to the Neighborhood project, conducted with her colleagues William H. Dutton, Keith Hampton, and Laleah Fernandez, to better understand Internet adoption and use in the context of low-income communities in Detroit, Michigan. They conducted focus groups in three neighborhoods in Detroit, as well as telephone surveys with Detroiters with the help of the Center for Urban Studies’ Survey Research Unit at Wayne State University.

The findings from both studies show that although those with a limited monthly budget have an acute understanding of the value of home broadband, the costs associated with home broadband service make it difficult for them to afford - with some having to prioritize other everyday expenses and others delaying paying other important bills just to be able to maintain their Internet access.

Madison Bishop

In considering these findings and their implications for digital inclusion policy in the United States, we argue that focusing on ability to pay, rather than perceived interest in or relevance of home internet access, provides a framework for understanding the local, cultural drivers, and barriers to broadband adoption in low-income communities.

The full results of this study are available in the new, special issue of Communication Research and Practice.

Colin Rhinesmith is an assistant professor in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. Rhinesmith’s research and teaching interests are focused on the social, community, and policy aspects of information and communication technology, particularly in areas related to digital equity and community technology. Previously, Colin was a faculty research fellow with the Benton Foundation and a faculty associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For more on "The ability to pay for broadband" contact Prof Rhinesmith

Bianca C. Reisdorf is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research examines digital inequalities in highly technologized countries with a focus on marginalized communities, often comparing populations across various countries. Recent publications have focused on the potential of digital media for prison populations reentering society as well as how attitudes affect Internet use. She obtained her D.Phil. in Information, Communication, and the Social Sciences from the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Reisdorf worked as a Lecturer and Director of Distance Learning at the University of Leicester, and as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Media and Information and the Assistant Director of the Quello Center at Michigan State University before joining UNC Charlotte. 

Madison Bishop is the Head of Youth Services at the Plymouth Public Library in Plymouth, Massachusetts and a former graduate research assistant at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons. Her research interests include the role of libraries in rural and exurban communities and the social and educational effects of digital inclusion in classrooms. She received her M.S. from the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons.

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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By Colin Rhinesmith.