Statement to the Reimagine New York State Commission
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Statement of John B. Horrigan, PhD
to the Reimagine New York State Commission
August 28, 2020
It is a pleasure to submit a statement to the Reimagine New York State Commission and offer observations on how to increase the rate of broadband adoption among New York State citizens. By way of background, I am a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute and Senior Research Advisor to the Urban Libraries Council. In the past, I have been an Associate Director at the Pew Research Center and Research Director at the Federal Communications Commission for the National Broadband Plan. I will share my views in a series of questions and answers; these views are my own.
Why connectivity matters?
Inclusion is at the foundation of communications policy in this country. The Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 both rest on the notion that advanced communications networks should be universally available and affordable. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that there is still more to be done to adapt these policy principles to the internet age. In just two decades, having the internet at home has gone from being a toy for hobbyists to an indispensable tool for commerce, education, and connectedness. Yet many people – low-income and communities of color especially – remain without high-speed internet at home.
A decade ago, the “cost of digital exclusion” began to be apparent. By the late 2000s, a growing number of employers were taking job applications exclusively online. For the one-third of Americans in 2010 without broadband at home, the right job was perhaps out of reach. Fast forward ten years, and what was once a costly inconvenience is now a debilitating deficiency. The COVID-19 pandemic has put digital exclusion into the spotlight. Being without online connectivity limits or prevents access to education, health care, government services, and contact with loved ones.
When the pandemic fades, concern about digital equity will not. High levels of unemployment and job displacement will make developing workforce skills a priority; job training resources are steadily moving online. The need for telehealth and online education may decline, but these modes of service delivery will persist. A sluggish economy will make it hard for some segments of the population to maintain home high-speed subscriptions. This puts the onus on stakeholders to think long-term in developing sustainable programs to meet connectivity challenges.
What metrics matter?
Policymakers should focus on whether households have wireline broadband subscriptions and desktop or laptop computers in the home. Research has shown that students with only smartphones for online access are less likely to complete homework assignments. Since the pandemic, a number of news articles have highlighted the challenges school children have engaging with online educational resources when they have data-limited smartphones or hotspots.
It is important to underscore the limits of smartphones; they are not a panacea for the digital divide. As the pandemic unfolded and citizens sought unemployment benefits, 86% of state unemployment websites failed tests for “mobile friendliness.” A 2018 study on low-income households who use hotspots for schoolwork show that they consume 60 gigabits of data per month – above the 50 GB threshold that many carriers have before slowing access speeds. Wireline broadband plans generally have either no data caps or caps of 1,024 GB – well above the average data usage of 344 GB at the end of 2019. Wireline broadband plans and large-screen computers or tablets allow users to carry out online tasks with little or no constraints.
How big are the gaps in New York State?
Analysis of 2018 American Community Survey data shows that 72.9% of New York households have a wireline broadband subscription and 77.8% have a desktop or laptop computer. (Both figures exceed those for the entire United States, where 69.6% of households have wireline broadband and 71.6% have computers.)
This means that approximately 2 million New York households do not have wireline broadband subscriptions at home. During the pandemic, policymakers and other stakeholders have appropriately directed much of their attention to the “homework gap,” i.e., households with school-age children who lack adequate online access. In New York State, 20.1% of households with children under 18 do not have wireline broadband subscriptions or about 424,000 households. Although the focus on the “homework gap” is understandable, the number of disconnected households without children far exceeds households suffering from the “homework gap.” Nearly 1.6 million New York households without school-age children lack wireline broadband subscriptions at home.
What explains gaps in home wireline broadband adoption?
Two factors figure prominently: affordability and digital readiness.
Analysis of national data on wireline broadband adoption shows that income is a highly significant predictor of whether a household subscribes to service. Nearly 40% of households in New York State have annual incomes below $50,000; just 57% of them have wireline service at home. By contrast, 87% of households whose incomes are above $75,000 annually have wireline broadband.
Although income is the preeminent factor that explains low wireline adoption rates, several others warrant attention. For citizens of New York State:
- 60.2% of those over the age of 65 have wireline at home.
- 66.1% of African Americans have home wireline subscriptions.
- 66.5% of Hispanics have wireline broadband at home.
For non-broadband subscribers, the threshold for affordability has no single answer. Research has shown that, for large portions of non-subscribers, zero would be their preferred price. This may reflect extreme poverty on their part or lack of skills or interest in using the internet. Qualitative research shows that those unwilling to pay anything for broadband are well aware of its value; they just lack the ability to pay due to extremely tight household budgets. Most discount offers aimed at non-adopters are $20 per month or less, with one of the larger and more successful programs (Comcast’s Internet Essentials) at $10 per month. For policymakers, the important thing is to ensure that discount internet offers are widely available, that information about them is aggressively disseminated, and that sign-up processes for potential beneficiaries is not burdensome.
The other reason behind low levels of broadband adoption is “digital readiness.” This idea captures the uncertainty that new internet users bring to their online experience; it has two parts. One pertains to the skills people have when it comes to using the internet, such as how to operate a computer or upload a resume. The other is trust – trust that the information they have online is reliable. Low levels of “digital readiness” afflict those new to the internet, as well as experienced users who may struggle with new applications. Its incidence can be substantial. Some one-third of adults have low levels of digital skills for next-generation applications. For e-learning, as many as half of the general population exhibit some level of reluctance to engage with it because they lack confidence on how to use such applications.
This fuels strong levels of demand for digital skills training, something that will not subside given the whirlwind of online information and the ongoing flow of new applications. A 2017 Pew Research Center study demonstrates the public’s interest in digital skills training. It found that 60% of all adults were interested in training on how to use online resources to find trustworthy information. Another 54% of all adults expressed interest in training on how to better use the internet, computers, and smartphones.
If affordability and digital readiness explain the likelihood of broadband adoption and use, do interventions aimed at these two things make a difference?
Yes, discount internet offerings and digital skills training have significant impacts.
Research shows that discount internet offers bring more people online than would otherwise be the case. Although this seems obvious, it is possible that, in a given area where discount internet offerings are available, observed increases in broadband adoption would have occurred anyway. Home broadband adoption rates have traditionally drifted upward, so even some low-income households may find the means to subscribe at market rates. However, evidence shows that this is not the case. A study designed to compare places with available discount internet offerings (such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials) found higher broadband adoption rates in those areas compared to similar areas in which no carrier offered a discount. Two-thirds of observed increases in broadband adoption were due to the presence of discount internet offerings. These reduced-price internet offerings, on balance, have a strong positive impact on home broadband subscribership.
Digital skills training
Similar to discount internet offerings, it seems intuitive that those who have had digital skills training benefit from it. However, it may be that those who seek such training may be highly motivated to learn; the training course itself may make no difference to their online habits since they might have developed digital skills on their own.
Yet a study designed to control for people’s existing levels of motivation did find a training effect. Regardless of whether someone has a high level of interest in learning, digital-skills programs help people engage with the internet to search for jobs and stay in touch with their children’s schools. The impact of training is sizable; 46% of recent broadband subscribers with digital skills training used the internet for job searches compared with 35% for those without training.
Is a connectivity stimulus (i.e., getting more people online in the face of the pandemic) enough?
Programs spurred by the pandemic to address digital inequities (e.g., free internet for a limited time to low-income households) are a start, but the need will not end with the pandemic. Reliance on the social safety net is bound to expand given the economic disruption brought about by the pandemic. The pandemic is as a “reallocation shock” for the job market, as up to 40% of those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic will not get them back and may have to pursue new lines of work. Increasing job opportunities will be a priority during recovery from the pandemic – and digital skills are an important qualification for good jobs in today’s economy. The healthcare field has seen an explosion in telehealth during the pandemic, but low levels of digital literacy are hampering access to such resources.
The other part of the equation is changing technology. The “internet of things” and other emerging applications will challenge many New Yorkers, not just on how to use them but whether to trust them. This creates an ongoing demand for tech support resources to help individuals keep current on digital skills. Not everyone has a nearby Apple Store to answer questions. Instead people turn to libraries and community organizations for trusted tech support.
How should stakeholders approach the problem?
Closing digital adoption gaps is at once a logistical problem and a social policy challenge. Logistics involve finding enough computers to refurbish and sell at a discount to individuals who qualify. It means finding distribution channels, such as schools. Information about cut-rate internet offers for low-income households must be conveyed to those who qualify. Verifying eligibility and the process of signing up for such plans must enhance the ease of subscribing for households in need – not raise barriers.
Helping new wireline broadband subscribers acclimate to the internet goes to the subtleties of social policy. It involves non-profits, libraries, and other community anchor institutions raising funds to develop curricula and teaching capacity for digital skills. It means identifying and addressing the digital skill needs of diverse populations. It is an undertaking that is very much a ground game that unfolds community-by-community. There is not “an app for that.” Rather it is about asset mapping – determining what groups and resources exist within a community that are trusted enough to help households in need get a broadband benefit. A dedicated process to encourage connectivity in low-income communities can build social capital – and make internet adoption and use a force for hope and progress in communities that need them.
Read Adapting Jobs Programs for Today and Tomorrow (July 2020) by John Horrigan, published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
John B. Horrigan is a frequent contributor to Benton's Digital Beat and a 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 Council. He served at the Federal Communications Commission as a member of the leadership team for the development of the National Broadband Plan. 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.
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.
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