Three Data Points to Help Plan for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Funding
Tuesday, April 5, 2022
Three Data Points to Help Plan for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Funding
As policymakers begin to plan how to use Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funds to increase broadband connectivity, there are three important data points from two recent surveys to keep in mind:
- Some 32% of households are subscription vulnerable, that is, they struggle to maintain service and have a very difficult time affording service.
Only 18% of cellphone-only respondents were “very satisfied” with their online access for activities such as school or work, activities that moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Some 35% of households with no internet connectivity were largely unable to use outside resources (e.g., friends or community organizations) for “proxy” internet use during the pandemic.
These data points offer “do’s” and “don’ts” for broadband planners and other decisionmakers:
- Do not think that getting people online is a one-time transaction; prepare for the long-term to provide resources to keep people online.
- Do not expect those relying only on smartphones to effectively engage online with educational or health resources; have laptop or tablet computer distribution programs in place.
- Do not underestimate the challenge, given how many low-income people have very limited internet experience; prepare to provide them with one-on-one help.
One of last year’s surveys looked at a major U.S. city— Philadelphia—with a diverse population and a significant level of poverty. The other was a representative national survey conducted with EveryoneOn (more here and here) that focused on households with annual incomes of $50,000 or less.
Subscription vulnerability is a big deal
For those new to digital equity, closing the digital divide may be a matter of helping people to clear a hurdle in the race for having access to online resources. Looked at in that way, the problem is binary. Some people live without internet service at home and then one day find a way to subscribe. Voila! They are internet users.
But the data tell a story of how many households struggle to maintain service. The Philadelphia survey showed that 15% of households lost service during the pandemic because of difficult economic circumstances. Twice as many (31%) of the lowest income households (whose incomes were $20,000 per year or less) lost service.
Programs such as free or discount internet offer help get households on firmer ground with internet access, but not solid ground. Some 63% of those using these plans said it would be “very” or “somewhat” difficult to keep service without them.
Given all this, it is no surprise that the set of “subscription vulnerable” households is large. One-third (32%) of all Philadelphia households fall into this category of homes that live near the poverty level, lost service during the pandemic, or have difficulty affording service.
A narrower focus on just lower-income households shows how prevalent this phenomenon can be. The EveryoneOn national survey found that half (49%) of lower-income households with some internet connectivity fell into the “subscription vulnerable” category.
Implications for policy: The time horizon in making progress on the digital divide is long. The tenuousness of connectivity during the pandemic shows how changes in economic circumstances threaten connectivity for lower-income households. And the scope of this threat is significant. This means newly developed mechanisms to address the digital divide in the context of the pandemic will be relevant well after the pandemic fades.
Cellular service alone is not enough
The smartphone will solve the digital divide—or so some argue. This notion has been around for ten years at least and has its origins in a 2012 Pew Research Center study that found that “[g]roups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic Internet access are using wireless connections to go online.” A 2017 Census Bureau report similarly found that “there are signs that handheld devices such as smartphones may help level the playing field. Some households that lack a desktop or laptop are using a smartphone or other handheld device to connect to the internet.”
The idea remains alluring. The EveryoneOn 2021 survey of lower-income households shows that 38% of non-broadband respondents cite the “smartphone lets you do everything online that you need to do” as a reason they do not have home fixed broadband service. Some 15% say it is the most important reason. The Pew Research Center, using a somewhat different set of choice categories, reported in 2021 that 45% of non-broadband users said the “smartphone does everything they need” as a reason they do not subscribe with 19% saying it is the most important reason (the latter number represents a decline from 23% in 2019). Both sets of findings suggest that, for many non-subscribers, the smartphone alone may fit the bill.
Yet a closer look exposes the limits of having only a smartphone for internet access, especially for more complex uses like education and healthcare as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EveryoneOn survey asked: “Since the pandemic began, how satisfied, if at all, have you been with the quality of your home internet connection for doing important online activities such as taking classes or doing your job?” For those wholly reliant on their cell phone for internet connectivity (i.e., they did not have a home fixed wireline subscription), just 18% were “very satisfied” and another 37% were “somewhat satisfied.” For all other respondents, responses were very different. Among those with a home wireline subscription, 38% were “very satisfied” and 36% were “somewhat satisfied.”
Another curious part of the picture is that, even though they do not have high levels of service satisfaction, many cell-only users say that the smartphone meets their needs. Some 65% of cell-only respondents say the reason they do not have a broadband subscription is that their smartphone does everything they need, with 26% saying it is the most important reason. But monthly service cost for broadband looms large for these respondents: 69% said it was a reason they did not subscribe with 34% saying it was the most important reason. There is clearly a relationship between saying the smartphone meets your internet needs and not being able to afford a home wireline subscription.
All this suggests that several things can be true at once when thinking about the role of smartphones:
- Smartphone-only users say it can do all they need because it is all they can afford.
- The smartphone—as the sole means for access—is not a very satisfactory tool when people have to do schoolwork or their jobs at home.
- Relying only on a smartphone for service is an economic choice driven by scarcity much more than preference. These households cannot afford fixed broadband plans and smartphone subscriptions.
Implications for policy: Fully addressing the digital divide means making sure people have computing devices to go online, but relying on smartphones is not the right way to think about the problem. For school or telehealth, people need devices with larger screens (e.g., desktops, laptops, or tablets).
The truly disconnected
The EveryoneOn survey asked respondents without any internet subscription plans—that is, those with neither a fixed broadband subscription nor a cellular plan—whether they accessed the internet during the pandemic. Here is what they said:
- 35% said they did not rely on family, friends, a school or library, or local community organization for access. These people were essentially cut off from the internet.
- 23% called a family member or friend to ask them to go online for them.
- 11% went to a friend’s house to use the internet.
- 4% went to a local public library and used the Wi-Fi connection outdoors.
- 4% called a local community organization for help.
The 35% figure for those cut off from the internet during the pandemic is a subset of a subset. It represents about one-third of all those in the under $50,000 annual income category that lack home internet access. In 2019, that was 25% of all such households according to the American Community Survey. With 35% having no access to the internet using friends, family, or organizations, this comes to more than 4 million U.S. households—in a global pandemic—with no ability to go online to order groceries, attend online classes, or have a telehealth session. Now, it is possible the share of disconnected households fell between 2019 and 2021, making the 4 million figure an upper-end estimate. Even so, several million low-income households lacked even proxy access to the internet during the pandemic.
Implications for policy: Digital navigation services are a vital ingredient to solving the digital divide. Large numbers of Americans have limited internet experience and if the policy goal is to address that, they will likely need one-on-one help. Digital navigators—people from communities where help is most needed—can serve that role.
Hoping for quick fixes to the digital divide is not realistic. Success – having nearly all Americans with resources to go online and the skills to use the internet – will take time. In the meantime, building the capacity to make and sustain progress is the task at hand. The data points shared above will help planners develop solutions that take root and grow.
John B. Horrigan is a Benton Senior Fellow. He is a national expert on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan served at the Federal Communications Commission as a member of the leadership team for the development of the National Broadband Plan. Additionally, as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, 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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