The Complexity of ‘Relevance’ as a Barrier to Broadband Adoption

An American and Canadian Perspective

Surveys identify divides, but qualitative research is needed to better understand digital inequality

The digital divide is a complex phenomenon that cannot be boiled down to a single issue. More recently, research on broadband adoption has tended to focus on a single barrier-- lack of interest in the Internet or a perception that the digital content delivered over broadband is not relevant to one’s life (often called simply “relevance”). In doing so we have disregarded how the digital divide is much more. Part of the problem is how we have studied the digital divide. Often our approaches have not allowed us to examine multiple factors simultaneously.

Quantitative Data
Digital divide research has relied on large-scale quantitative data, like surveys, to understand reasons for non-use. These data have been an excellent means to gain insight into larger trends and patterns in society. And national surveys have given us a good sense of broadband adoption in the US and Canada:

  1. The Internet has largely diffused in North American society, and penetration rates have reached 67% in the U.S.[1] and nearly 83%[2] in Canada.
  2. The top three barriers to broadband adoption are cost, digital literacy, and relevance.[3]

'Relevance' and Broadband Adoption

Relevance is a more-nuanced phenomenon than previous research has described

Relevance is often reported in large-scale surveys as a key factor in non-adoption. For example, a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center shows that 22% of non-users believed that the Internet was not relevant to their lives.[4] Relevance was later listed as the third-most significant barrier to broadband adoption in the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan[5] and later reiterated by Comcast’s Internet Essentials program.[6] However, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more people now say home broadband access is important to their lives.[7]

While it is true that some people may not feel the Internet is relevant to them, other studies[8] have called attention to the issue of relevance as a more-nuanced phenomenon than previous research has described.

In our research with low-income communities, we find that the story of the digital divide is more complex than what can be captured through large-scale quantitative data. When asked why they do not subscribe to broadband, their response ‘no need/no relevance’ is rooted in other barriers such as cost, lack of digital literacy, lack of confidence, and little understanding of what kinds of activities the Internet can facilitate.

We argue that successful interventions will need to unpack the relevance concept and address “ability to pay” instead of “willingness to pay” for broadband at home. Further research, including additional questions on nationwide broadband adoption surveys, is also needed to establish a more in-depth understanding of relevance as an issue, particularly for individuals and families in low-income communities where cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption.

Qualitative Findings in the US

Colin Rhinesmith’s research revealed that individuals and families in low-income communities who participated in his study already understood the value of broadband.[9] Rather, it was the high-cost of broadband and the associated fees to get online that made it challenging for these people to fit broadband service into their monthly budgets.

Successful adoption interventions must recognize the role that persistent poverty plays

The administrators and staff from the digital inclusion organizations and the community members he spoke with all identified the following four-part strategy as a driver of broadband adoption at home: (1) providing low-cost broadband; (2) connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services; (3) making low-cost computers available; and (4) operating public access computing centers.

Successful adoption interventions must recognize the role that persistent poverty plays in shaping people’s ability to access and regularly use computers and broadband service. More research is needed to understand budgeting issues and other social concerns rooted in people’s everyday experiences living in poverty.

The Digital Inclusion Project: Qualitative Findings in Canada

While some people may say the Internet is irrelevant to their life, follow up questions reveal that relevance is related to cost, digital literacy, and awareness of what the Internet can facilitate

Canada today shows comparable statistics for Internet penetration to other Western nations, with about 83% of Canadians reporting having accessed the Internet in the past 12 months.[2] Despite attempts to close the digital divide, it has been difficult to connect the remaining 16% of non-users. What has been particularly disconcerting is that those in low-income brackets have the highest rates of non-adoption, suggesting that non-use of the Internet is rooted in other inequalities. This raises three central questions: Are non-users simply not interested in going online? And, do non-users of the Internet see no relevance to connectivity in their lives? Or, are other factors influencing non-users in their choice to not adopt broadband services?

Michael Haight and Anabel Quan-Haase led the Digital Inclusion project, which aimed to more effectively unpack the reasons low-income individuals give for not adopting the Internet[10]. The project moved away from large-scale quantitative data collection approaches to relying on data from one-on-one interviews with inhabitants of low-income housing units. This approach allowed the researchers to directly speak with people and to follow-up on responses of “no relevance/no interest”. Follow-up questions included: “If cost were reduced to 15-20 dollars a month would you be interested?”, “What if you could receive a computer that was subsidized?”, and “Would a training or mentorship program help get you online?” Through this approach, the project was able to gain a more-nuanced understanding of the barriers to adoption for non-users of the Internet than past studies. For a significant portion of respondents, their lack of interest in using the Internet was rooted in the cost of the service, their lack of digital literacy, or their inability to obtain an affordable computer.

These insights are difficult to accurately capture with strictly large-scale quantitative approaches. The findings from this research suggest that while some users may genuinely see no need or interest in using the Internet, oftentimes that feeling is grounded in another explanation.


Broadband adoption barriers are complex and interconnected

Future studies of broadband adoption should investigate the nuances and cross sections that may be present within the explanations of broadband non-adopters. This includes asking questions aimed at unpacking how certain barriers to adoption may be interconnected and, in the case of relevance, be rooted in some other explanations.

In response to broadband adoption surveys that show people “not interested in getting online,” we suggest adding follow-up questions that focus on cost and digital literacy. For example, a potential follow-up question might be, “If you could have affordable Internet access at a price within your budget, would you get broadband at home?” Because low-income individuals have little expendable income, we recommend follow-up questions that call attention to issues related to limited household budgets. This question, within a broader evaluation framework focused on the social aspects of broadband adoption, can provide a way to grasp the issue of relevance and its ties to cost as a barrier.

For policymakers, it is important to recognize that broadband adoption barriers are complex and interconnected. It is important to consider how the explanations for non-adoption are interwoven and how interest or relevance is often rooted in the costs associated with broadband adoption or the digital literacy needed to use this technology effectively.

Dr. Colin Rhinesmith was a Benton Faculty Research Fellow from 2015-2017.

Anabel Quan-Haase is an Associate Professor of Library and Information Studies, Media Studies, and Sociology at the University of Western Ontario and the director of the SocioDigital Lab.

Michael Haight is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the SocioDigital Lab.

  1. Horrigan, J. & Duggan, M. (2015). Home broadband 2015. Pew Research Center [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  2. Statistics Canada. (2013). Canadian GSS 2013. Statistics Canada [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  3. Federal Communications Commission. (2010). National broadband plan: Connecting America. FCC [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  4. Pew Research Center. (June 2009). Home broadband adoption 2009. Pew Research Center [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  5. Federal Communications Commission. National broadband plan: Connecting America. FCC [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  6. Comcast (July 2012). Annual compliance report on Internet essentials. The Comcast Broadband Opportunity Program [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  7. Horrigan, J. & Duggan, M. (2015). Home broadband 2015. Pew Research Center [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  8. Dailey, D. et al. (March, 2010). Broadband adoption in low-income communities. Social Science Research Council: 15. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  9. Rhinesmith, C. (2016). Digital inclusion and meaningful broadband adoption. Benton Foundation [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from
  10. Haight, M. & Quan-Haase, A. (2015). Digital inclusion project: Findings and implications from a Canadian perspective. Benton Foundation [Report]. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from

By Colin Rhinesmith.