Experimentation is the Watchword as Communities Seek to Close Adoption Gaps

John Horrigan 

For many low-income Americans, internet connectivity is a struggle. About half (53%) of those in households with annual incomes under $30,000 have a home broadband internet subscription plan, compared with 93% of households whose annual incomes exceed $75,000. This makes closing connectivity gaps a priority for policymakers, the non-profit sector, and many internet service providers (ISPs).

What is perhaps less appreciated is the variety of models that have arisen to try to reach those without broadband at home. The population of non-home broadband users is not monolithic. The plurality cannot afford the monthly access fee. Others do not have a sufficient level of digital skills to confidently negotiate the online world. Those who rely on a smartphone often cannot afford a broadband subscription, but they also report limitations on what they can do online with only a small screen and (often) a cap on monthly data usage.

One approach to closing access gaps is to use mobile broadband. In the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, Mobile Beacon collaborated with PCs for People to provide refurbished computers to low-income households along with uncapped, unthrottled internet access for anywhere between $10 and $13 per month (depending on the length of contract). Families in this program, called Bridging the Gap, are clearly in economic distress: For half, the head of household was unemployed; few (27%) had home broadband in the past; and the average household income was about $23,000 per year (with 45% having school-age children).

Research on the usage patterns among Bridging the Gap households reveals several things:

  • People quickly embrace the internet, as 94% of subscribers say they use the internet daily and 82% say they use the internet several hours a day.
  • Average data consumption is 41 GB per month; but those who engage in online educational activities use 25 GB more and those using the internet for job-search activities use 14 GB more.
  • Home internet access impacts children and their schoolwork. Among families with children, nearly all parents say online access helps them support their kids academically and stay in touch with their kids’ teachers. More than half (54%) of parents say their children spend more than 4 hours per week using the internet for school work.
  • Home internet access also impacts lifelong learning for adults. One-third (32%) of adults in the program were taking classes of some sort and home online access helps them meet the demands of those courses. Additionally, 24% of adults started a daily or weekly online class since obtaining home internet service through Bridging the Gap.

The results from the research on Bridging the Gap are consistent with findings from research on other programs to encourage broadband adoption among low-income populations. Research on Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has shown that users find that it improves communication between the family and teachers, helps students carry out school assignments, and (in conjunction with digital skills training) draws adults to job-search and lifelong learning.

Beyond Mobile Beacon, there are other models to encourage broadband adoption. In the private sector, several large ISPs offer discounted service packages targeted at specific populations. Spectrum’s Internet Assist program targets a service plan that is $14.99 per month for 30 Mbps service (with in-home Wi-Fi another $5 per month) to seniors and low-income families with school-age children and seniors. Cox Communications’ Connect2Compete package is aimed at low-income families with children in school for $9.95 per month for 10 Mbps service. Comcast’s Internet Essentials program provides families with school-age children with service at $9.95 per month and speeds of 15 Mbps (which includes in-home Wi-Fi). The wireless carrier Sprint’s One Million program provides free devices and 3 gigabits of data per month to low-income households with school-age children.

There are also approaches that bring the private, non-profit, and public sectors together to address broadband adoption gaps. Many libraries lend mobile “hotspot” devices to low-income patrons, often with a focus on addressing the “homework” gap so that school-age children have internet access for school work. The ConnectHomeUSA initiative aims at closing adoption gaps in participating public housing projects across the country, with the non-profit EveryoneOn coordinating service provision.

Mobile Beacon’s Bridging the Gap program – and others described here – are examples of experimentation in approaches to reach a segment of the broadband market that has been difficult to reach. Most models rely on public-private partnerships collaborating with libraries, schools, and community non-profits to drive uptake. There are also variations in pricing, speed, and data thresholds across offerings.

The experimentation in broadband adoption is encouraging to see. However, the Federal Communications Commission, as it works to reform the Lifeline program that supports connectivity for low-income households, seems to be discouraging such experimentation. The FCC’s November 2016 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) envisions restricting the market for provision of Lifeline-supported services by providing the Lifeline subsidy only to facilities-based carriers. This renders resellers of other carriers’ network service (such as Mobile Beacon) ineligible for Lifeline subsidies. The proposal would also limit consumer choice for Lifeline-supported services.

Additionally, under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the Commission suspended the eligibility of nine Lifeline Broadband Providers (LBP) (eight of which were planning to offer service and one already with customers). This foreclosed the possibility of learning lessons on how to serve low-income populations with broadband. Although many of the models noted above do not depend on designation as a LBP, if some initiatives choose to participate in Lifeline, consumers could have further cost relief for monthly service.

Chairman Pai says the recent actions are driven by his desire to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program. That is a laudable goal. But the unintended consequences are potentially significant. In particular, the proposed changes to Lifeline may limit incentives to continue the kind of market and community-based experimentation in reaching low-income populations who have difficulty in obtaining and sustaining home broadband service.

John B. Horrigan is Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, with a focus on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan is also currently a consultant to the Urban Libraries Coalition. Additionally, he has served as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, where he focused on libraries and their impact on communities, as well as technology adoption patterns and open government data.

By John Horrigan.