Benton and Rhinesmith Continue Digital Inclusion Research Partnership

Just one year ago, Dr. Colin Rhinesmith joined the Benton Foundation as our Faculty Research Fellow. We want to aid both policymakers and practitioners in the design, implementation, and evaluation of digital inclusion and broadband adoption strategies. The goal is open, affordable, high-capacity broadband access, adoption and use for all Americans. Our partnership has produced important research and, we’re happy to announce, will continue for the next year.

To date, Dr. Rhinesmith’s research has delved much deeper into broadband adoption barriers than large, national surveys have. Although many of these surveys have identified non-adopters’ belief that the Internet and broadband aren’t relevant to their lives as a major barrier, Colin’s interviews with low-income individuals and families revealed that they did indeed understand the value of broadband connectivity. Many people explained to Colin that cost remained the most significant barrier to their full adoption of broadband in the home. Consumers, you see, consider broadband service to be relevant if other barriers -- and, most notably price -- are overcome. Dr. Rhinesmith’s research showed that policymakers needed to address low-income consumers ability to pay for broadband rather than their willingness to pay. Frankly, the people Colin spoke with were making choices between broadband service and having enough money to feed their families.

In January, Benton published Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, Dr. Rhinesmith’s national study of eight digital inclusion organizations. Importantly, by focusing on the organizations that are bridging the digital divide and their clients, Colin could identify the essential and interrelated components of full digital inclusion:

  • First, you need the wire that brings high-speed Internet access to people in their communities and, ultimately, their homes.
  • Broadband Internet access service, and the devices used to connect to it, must be affordable.
  • People need the 21st century digital skills to operate those devices and navigate the service.
  • Finally, people must be able to find content and services that are relevant to their lives.

We shared this research with the Federal Communications Commission as it considered how to best modernize its Lifeline program aimed at making telecommunications services more affordable for low-income households. Dr. Rhinesmith’s findings justify the FCC’s move to refocus Lifeline subsidies toward making broadband more affordable for households with the least amount of resources. For these households, the FCC’s decision means better access to employment opportunities, more educational tools for their children, better healthcare information, and improved communications with friends and family.

Dr. Rhinesmith’s research also provides the FCC with guidance as it develops a comprehensive plan to better understand the non-price barriers to digital inclusion and to propose how it can facilitate efforts to address those barriers. The FCC's digital inclusion plan will determine how Lifeline can best be leveraged to significantly impact the lives of millions of consumers across the Nation, particularly those in the communities we at Benton call "Digital Deserts" -- key demographic groups, such as households with lower incomes, seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities, rural communities, and those living on Tribal lands.

In addition to this seminal work, Colin has introduced a number of other researchers to the Benton ‘family.’

  • In December, Colin and the Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Brian Whitacre published new research on broadband “un-adopters,” the people who have subscribed to broadband service in the past, but have later dropped it. These people made up 12 percent of all non-adopting households as of 2013. Un-adopters cite cost, the potential to use the Internet elsewhere, and the inadequacy of their computer as reasons for their discontinued use. Brian and Colin’s findings suggest that to reach un-adopters, subsidized broadband 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.
  • Also in December, Benton published Digital Inclusion Project: Findings and Implications, A Canadian Perspective. Western University’s Michael Haight and Anabel Quan-Haase interviewed public housing residents in Southern Ontario. They found when residents initially indicated they had no need for Internet service or felt it wasn’t relevant to their lives, included in interviews were feelings that computers and/or monthly Internet service costs are unaffordable -- and that residents lacked digital skills and confidence to make use of the Internet.
  • In January, Dr. Rhinesmith teamed with Angela Siefer, Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and Katherine Bates of the Urban Libraries Council on Benton’s Libraries' Increasing Role in Broadband Adoption. They found that library systems are increasingly prioritizing equitable access to the Internet and digital literacy training. The focus on expanding broadband access and use is happening locally and nationally with libraries advocating for digital equity through partnerships with community-based organizations and engagement strategies with local neighborhoods. The New York Public Library and the Kansas City Public Library, for example, are experimenting with and searching for innovative solutions to the digital divide, which includes increasing home broadband access.
  • Colin also introduced us to Michigan State University’s Dr. Bianca Reisdorf. She published a series of articles in our Digital Beat blog summarizing the research she’s done on Internet adoption in Europe. She’s recognized that the pool of people who have not yet adopted broadband are the ones, perhaps obviously, that face the most barriers – including, oddly enough, the stigma of non-adoption and the feeling one can never “catch-up” to other Internet users. Reisdorf has also explored the potential benefits of introducing Internet service in prisons, a powerful tool for improving rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism.

Building on this great work over the last year, we are excited about the research we’ll be publishing over the coming months:

  1. Local Digital Inclusion Plans: Dr. Rhinesmith, Dr. Brandon Brooks, Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Angela Siefer, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, are conducting an initial assessment of the cities that have developed and employed digital equity plans and writing case studies of Austin, Seattle, and Portland. The research will be published in the Journal of Digital and Media Literacy and at
  2. Outcomes-Based Evaluation: In follow up research, Rhinesmith is investigating the evaluation challenges facing a broader group of digital inclusion organizations and determining what outcomes-based evaluation tools are needed to address these shared barriers. The goal of the study is to develop solutions, tools, and frameworks for digital inclusion organizations to help strengthen the field. We hope to publish our Outcomes-Based Evaluation study in November.
  3. Digital Inclusion Case Studies: In collaboration with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Benton is developing broadband adoption case studies to document the strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms of local broadband adoption programs. The studies will highlight:
    • the barriers to broadband adoption (i.e., cost, privacy/trust, digital skills, equipment, tech support);
    • the impact of data caps or high data caps; and
    • local solutions to overcome these barriers.

Both on-the-ground practioners and policymakers need good research to fashion the best solutions to connecting those who have yet to embrace the Internet. We believe supporting Dr. Rhinesmith’s work will lead to data-driven policy decisions that help us realize a fully-connected digital society.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.