Modernizing How We Assess Broadband Affordability

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Digital Beat

Modernizing How We Assess Broadband Affordability

Digital Equity Practitioners Should Apply Modern Approaches to Affordability Assessment But Will Need Support to Do So

Dharma Dailey

Best practice methods for assessing affordability developed and endorsed by academic and government affordability experts can provide much greater precision in assessing need thereby enabling more informed and more targeted digital equity interventions. However, recent experience in Washington state has revealed that few of us in the digital equity realm are yet comfortable applying these methods, or, indeed, are even aware of them. To clarify the problem with current methods and the possibility for improvement, we focus on one key component of digital equity—affordable broadband. 

Digital Equity Practitioners Are Confused About How to Assess the Affordability Gap in Their Communities

Sabrina Roach

It’s been 14 years since research informing the National Broadband Plan found that the internet is essential for Americans at all income levels, and unsurprisingly, affordability is a factor for “non-adoption.” Yet, there is not yet a consensus methodology for determining what “affordable” broadband might be. Nor do we have a definitive way of assessing how many people might be cost-burdened. In the absence of a consensus methodology to assess broadband affordability, a spotty patchwork of different measures and thresholds has been in use. For example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has looked at what people are willing to pay for the Internet, which is, at best, a loose indicator of something people need for work, school, medical care, and other essentials. To our knowledge, all programs to support less-resourced households and communities to attain sufficient internet service rely on different multipliers of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) federal poverty guidelines—the simplified version of the U.S. Official Poverty Measure (OPM). This is problematic because the OPM is a blunt instrument for measuring need— a relic of the 1960s—an era when relevant data was far more sparse and the analytic tools of governance relied more on paper and pencil than computational analyses. Though we've long since passed the analytic limitations of the 1960s, legacy practices keep us in the past in terms of assessing affordability.

Why Are The Current (Yet Outdated) Measures of Assessing Affordability a Problem?

Millions of Americans fall between the somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent guidelines for prevailing digital equity interventions. For example, the Affordable Connectivity Program has provided subsidized internet service to households at 200 percent of the Official Poverty Measure (OPM). However, affordability experts looking at Washington state in 2023 found 225,677 Washington state households were making more than 200 percent of the OPM, yet were not making enough to cover basic necessities such as food and housing. The same analysis applied across the US has similar results, with millions of households found to be falling between current program guidelines and actual self-sufficiency. 

Affordability Experts Want Us To “Modernize” How We Assess Affordability

Digital equity practitioners should be aware of two recent developments: 

  1. The National Academies of Sciences recently published “consensus recommendations” on how to assess affordability that were developed by a diverse and esteemed panel of affordability experts and 

  2. Digital tools make it possible for those of us who are not affordability experts to apply the methods that affordability experts want us to use.

Affordability Experts (Still) Want Us To Transition Away From The Official Poverty Measure To More Accurate Measures—And New Tools Make It More Possible To Do So

If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the OPM methodology, it will likely come as a shock that it does not consider all of the key factors that determine what people can afford in real life. The OPM methodology is flawed because it only relies on one “market basket” necessity (food). It does not consider other essential costs (such as shelter, health insurance, and so forth). Further, it does not consider that the cost of essential necessities varies by location. Though the income threshold for poverty status does change by the number of people in a household, the count is “raw,” not taking into account that basic necessities are different depending on a person’s age and circumstance. For example, many households comprised of working parents with young children need daycare.  

The OPM methodology was a great advancement when it was developed back in the 1960s. In that era, multivariate analyses were done on costly computers the size of your living room, which were only available to a handful of large businesses and government agencies. Data to give a more complete picture was sparse. In that context, it made sense for demographers to greatly simplify how to assess need. According to anti-poverty experts, the factors that influence affordability for a given person include not only income but also what people actually have to pay for all of their essential goods and services such as food, housing, health care, and so on. This varies by location. For example, households in the northeast will pay more for home heating than those in the southwest. And the same level of broadband service may cost more in one county than in another.  So, a better measure of affordability than the OPM takes into account all essential basic costs as they actually occur in a given location. Additionally, a better measure of affordability considers that essential costs vary for different households.  

Affordability experts have been advocating for the inclusion of these other factors (actual costs of basic necessities + household composition + income) since the 1990s. “Market basket” comparisons that track several types of essential costs have been in use among affordability experts for three decades. 

The 2023 National Academies consensus recommendations renew the call for this approach. One important difference from three decades ago is that we now have regularly published public data needed to apply the modern approach to assessing affordability. Another important change is that we can create digital tools that enable those of us who are not experts to apply these more complicated yet more accurate assessments of affordability. For example, the  Workforce Development Council of Seattle - King County’s (WDC) ) online “Self-Sufficiency Calculator” is a public-facing tool that enables individuals across the state to assess their own self-sufficiency status. The calculator is integrated into WDC’s program offerings—both helping those who can benefit from their services to self-screen and providing rich data for WDC program management.

Behind this simple-to-use tool is the modern methodology for assessing affordability: A matrix of 719 different variations of household composition based on age and other socio-demographic factors developed at the University of Washington along with the most recent data on the cost of 17 different basic necessities by county. With a bit of training and support, hundreds of direct service organizations along with local planners, government agencies, businesses, and foundations across the United States who want to accurately assess need, have been incorporating these modern methods of assessing affordability developed and recommended by affordability experts into planning, program development, and assessment. The Self-Sufficiency Calculator shows what is possible when affordability experts tailor the modern methodology to create a fit-for-purpose assessment tool.

We Need to Invest in Learning Modern Affordability Methods and in Developing Fit-for-Purpose Analytic Tools to Make Best Use of Them

The consensus recommendations of affordability experts and the ability to create analytic tools that enable the rest of us to apply those recommendations make it nearly inevitable that these approaches will influence the future of how we assess broadband affordability. The question is whether that transition will take months, years, or decades. The more quickly we can authentically integrate them into our intervention planning and program assessments, the sooner we can close the broadband affordability gap. 

However, there is a learning curve to adopting and making the best use of these more accurate ways of assessing affordability. Without support to make the transition, our progress in assessing—and therefore addressing—the broadband affordability gap will be hindered. 

For example, the University of Washington team behind the Self-Sufficiency Calculator co-developed it with the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.  The WDC provides training to organizations that deploy the calculator.  The UW scientists they partnered with also spend a good deal of time working with funders, non-profits, government agencies, and businesses who want to apply the methodology to program planning and assessment. Likewise, broadband experts will need the same type of support to design fit-for-purpose analytic tools and then apply those tools. The trade-off for this level of investment is that the modern approaches to assessing affordability can consistently and readily be applied by planners, program managers, evaluators, and all else who need such knowledge at levels of government, NGOs, industry, think tanks, and so forth. This could greatly accelerate addressing the broadband affordability gap.

Recommendation: Make a Field-Level Investment in Modernizing Affordability Assessment

Three field-level investments could greatly accelerate the adoption of best practice affordability assessment methods. 

1) Train the digital equity field on modern affordability assessment methods. Modern affordability assessment approaches are more accurate because they are more comprehensive. The price of greater accuracy is that there is a learning curve to understanding and applying modern affordability assessment methods. Trainings on the what-how-and-why of modern affordability assessment methodologies will help digital equity practitioners understand the benefits of modern approaches to affordability.

2) Bring affordability and digital equity experts together to vision and co-design. A critical step toward successful application of modern affordability assessment methods for digital equity interventions is in visioning how a more accurate assessment of need can innovate digital equity interventions at the local, state, national, and tribal levels. Workshops that help digital equity practitioners become conversant with modern affordability assessment methods set the stage for such visioning. Ideally, a series of such workshops would set such a foundation and then respectively focus on different extant areas of digital equity interventions: infrastructure build out such as NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD)  Program, reduced cost internet such as the Affordable Connectivity Program, and so forth.  Such workshops can support the directive currently upon states to design middle-class affordability plans because modern affordability assessment tools can give a more accurate and detailed account of exactly which households are struggling within the middle-class demographic.

At the same time, workshops that bring together these two types of domain knowledge can support the efforts of affordability experts to refine their assessment methodologies pertaining to digital equity, specifically, A) the technical requirements that constitute a basic level of essential broadband service for connectivity and devices, and B) the best means of regularly tracking the cost of service and devices that meet those requirements at the local level across the U.S. 

3) Develop fit-for-purpose analytic tools that simplify the application of modern affordability measurements for digital equity assessment and evaluation. A final field-level investment that can help instantiate the co-design of digital equity and affordability practitioners will be the creation of fit-for-purpose analytic tools that make it easy for planners, program leads, community members, service providers, and others to get the same field-level view of need, yet tailored to their analytic requirements.


Join our state digital equity revenue bill development task force. We’ll be using the Self-Sufficiency Standard for evaluation and benchmarking. We will meet twice a month initially with a goal of building draft model legislation by the end of June. Email Sabrina Roach for more information and to RSVP:

The one-hour meetings will be Wednesdays at 2 PM Eastern / 1 PM Central / 12 PM Mountain / 11 AM Pacific:

March 27th

April 10th and 24th

May 8th and 22nd

June 5th and 19th

Dharma Dailey is a Research Associate at the eScience Institute at the University of Washington working to understand how human-centered design can be incorporated into data intensive research. She is the Human-Centered Data Scientist for UW’s Data Science for Social Good Program, mentoring teams in exploring the social dimensions of their projects. She recently spent two years leading a coalition of Data for Good organizers to document and share better practices for running university-based Data Science for Social Good programs and is currently evaluating UW DSSG’s impact. She is also Part-Time Faculty in the Computing & Software Systems Division of the University of Washington Bothell School of STEM where she teaches User Research and Interaction Design.

Since 2011, Sabrina Roach has fostered digital equity through collaboration with legislators and public stakeholders. She co-led bill development on the Washington State Digital Equity Act in 2022, securing $50 million in funding. In her role as the Washington State University Extension Digital Equity Lead on an $8 million contract with the Washington State Department of Commerce, engaged 2,000 stakeholders, all 39 counties, and 24 Tribes in digital equity planning. Sabrina's impact extends nationally, as she played a pivotal role in developing the original Digital Navigator model in 2020 while at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. As the founder of Make Digital Equity, she continues her work on bill development with WA Digital Equity Partners and guides a digital navigator consortium in partnership with the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County and community based organizations.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2023. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

For subscribe/unsubscribe info, please email headlinesATbentonDOTorg

Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

Share this edition:

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities