Poverty and the Cost of Broadband
Much of the research on broadband adoption has focused on understanding the factors that influence whether an individual is likely to pay for high-speed Internet services. These factors have been used to predict rates of broadband adoption. As part of this thinking, the phrase “willingness to pay” has become widely accepted within broadband adoption literature. This phrase focuses on what an individual is willing to pay for high-speed Internet access, while also paying attention to demographic characteristics of the individuals studied. However, my recent research for the Benton Foundation finds that cost continues to be a major barrier to broadband adoption. Successful efforts to bridge the digital divide need to address “ability to pay” rather than “willingness to pay.”
Successful digital inclusion efforts should recognize the role that persistent poverty plays in shaping people’s abilities to access and use computers and the Internet. The low-income adults who participated in this study explained that paying for broadband is not as much of a choice that involves what they are willing to pay for different Internet speeds, but rather a choice between broadband service and the ability to pay for food.
All of the low-income individuals and families I spoke with for this study understood the value of broadband connectivity. And most explained to me that cost remained the most significant barrier to their full adoption of broadband in the home. Low-cost or free computers and public access computing, in addition to low-cost or free Internet and digital literacy training, were also important to individuals and families as they worked with digital inclusion organizations to adopt broadband Internet in ways that were meaningful and relevant to their everyday lives.
Having the ability to purchase Internet service for the home at a reduced price supports low-income people in other aspects of their lives: It makes it easier for them to apply for jobs; improves their computer skills for the workplace; helps their children complete homework assignments; and allows them to participate more fully in society.
Let me highlight a couple of digital inclusion projects I researched that illustrate the importance of low-cost broadband service.
In rural Maine, access to the Internet continues to be a problem for several reasons, including the lack of broadband availability due to the geography and expense for Internet service providers (ISPs). Axiom Technologies , located in Machias, Maine, is a for-profit ISP that provides fixed wireless broadband services to residents in Washington County. Axiom also operates the nonprofit Axiom Education and Training Center because the company realized several years ago that residents in Washington County need access to low-cost Internet and digital literacy training.
While the training is offered free of charge to local residents, the cost of Internet access continues to be an issue for some of the rural residents in Washington County. As one focus group participant at Axiom Education and Training Center explained,
It’s hard because we’re in Washington County. Internet’s expensive—and we’re on our own doing this. It’s either rent, food, or Internet. They need to do something for low-income people to get Internet. I mean, I’m not asking for like a hand-out, but something to make it easier for low-income people to get a cheaper deal.
PCs for People
In the Twin Cities in Minnesota, PCs for People also assists residents in gaining access to low-cost broadband service because the cost of broadband can be prohibitive, particularly for many individuals and families in low-income communities. The organization set up a payment plan for clients and offered them a $10 per month service. Individuals could buy three months, six months, or one year of broadband service. This also allowed them to come in to PCs for People, which is located in their neighborhood, and get a $60 modem. As one community member who paid for broadband service through PCs for People explained,
The $10 is definitely easier. I mean, some months it might help to pay more. It is a little bit more if you pay by month. I think it is like $15 or $13 or something, and sometimes it is what you got to do. You know, it is that or groceries, but it is nice if you do have the money you can pay ahead and that has been really helpful.
My findings suggest that more research is needed to understand budgeting issues and other concerns related to people’s experiences living in poverty, if we are to truly close the digital divide. I also found that by looking outside the home and into the community, digital inclusion researchers and policymakers can gain a deeper understanding of the important role that community-based and social service organizations, as trusted community assets, play in helping people gain access to technology in meaningful ways that reflect their everyday experiences with poverty.