Too uneducated to understand the importance of home Internet?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Digital Beat

Too uneducated to understand the importance of home Internet?

Once again, Internet experts blame lack of “relevance” for the digital divide



In their recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “Cities, not rural areas, are the real Internet deserts,” authors Blair Levin and Larry Downes argue that the digital divide in cities persists because uneducated people do not understand the importance, or “relevance,” of the internet in their everyday lives. The core argument, then, is that the digital divide, or what has been referred to as the gap between those with and those without access to the internet, is not a problem of access or cost but “a problem of education.” In other words, since “poorer, older, and less educated Americans” can access low-cost internet access through programs such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials, the affordability gap has already been bridged? Convincing these people that using the internet is beneficial, they argue, is the real challenge for digital inclusion policymakers.

Too few policymakers understand that too many low-income people are deciding between broadband bills and food bills


The authors are correct in half their argument. It is certainly true that, as they say, “the digital not exclusively or even most significantly a rural problem.” However, as we have previously written and as various academic studies on digital inequalities have shown (e.g. Fernandez, Reisdorf, & Dutton, 2019; Powell, Bryne, & Dailey, 2010; Reisdorf, Hampton, Fernandez, & Dutton, 2018; Rhinesmith, Reisdorf, & Bishop, 2019), relying solely on survey data to examine reasons for broadband non-adoption -- and not the actual everyday experiences of low-income people -- misses the point.

It’s also true that the 2017 National Telecommunications and Information Administration report states “the percentage of respondents who say they don't have broadband at home because they have ‘no need’ or ‘no interest’ reached almost 60%, nearly double the percentage who consistently gave that response from 2003 to 2009.” However, as we have previously argued here and here, the design of survey questions can often be leading, particularly when "no need" or "no interest" is the first reason listed on surveys asking why people do not pay for broadband service at home. 

In our research, we found that when following up with additional questions why low-income people do not pay for internet access at home, they often cite cost and having to pick and choose between which bills to pay as the number one barrier to broadband adoption. For example, as we wrote in our recent article published in the journal Communication Research & Practice, low-income residents had an acute understanding of the importance of internet access but needed to prioritize other bills, including cell phones and data plans, which provide internet access at any place anytime. When forced to choose between mobile access and home access, the necessity of being able to use the internet on the go outweighed home access for almost all our research participants (see also Fernandez, Reisdorf, & Dutton, 2019). 

A legitimate question remains why, given the various $10 access options from numerous broadband providers, so few low-income residents sign up for these services. While it may be true that some people are not aware of these low-cost offers, we believe that several factors are at play here: 

First, many people we spoke with feel it is too complicated to sign up for these kinds of services. Although low-cost options are being expanded to broader segments of the population, the sign-up process is perceived as complex and requiring documentation that isn’t readily available. In addition, some low-income residents are not “poor enough” to qualify for these low-cost options or there is no provider with low-cost options in their community.

Second, home internet access is not useful if residents are lacking the necessary devices such as laptops, tablets, or desktop computers. As Amy Gonzales’s (2016) work on technology maintenance has shown, low-income residents do not just struggle with affording home access, but also with affording the purchase and upkeep of devices to make use of such access. 

Third, Levin and Downes underestimate the financial hardship that large parts of urban low-income communities are dealing with. As an example, the median annual household income in Detroit was $26,000 during the time of our research (Reisdorf et al., 2018). More than half of our sample of 525 residents lived on less or much less than that, with most of our participants living with several other people in their household. Given other, more important, bills and purchases that need to be paid -- such as water, electricity, cell phones, rent, and groceries -- those $10 per month options can make a big difference, especially if we add to this the upkeep of devices. Some low-income participants in our research also told us that even at $10 month, it can be a choice for them between paying for internet or food.

Rather than focusing on the digital divide as a problem of “relevance,” which Levin and Downes argue is largely due to a lack of education, we believe strongly that policymakers and other digital equity stakeholders should focus on providing funding for the organizations that work with those most affected by the digital divide. Digital inclusion organizations, like public libraries, offer what we have described as an “ecology of support” that low-income individuals and families often need to support their meaningful broadband adoption. This includes low-cost internet options, along with low-cost devices, digital literacy training, and public access computing (Rhinesmith, 2016; Reisdorf & Rhinesmith, 2018).

Policymakers should support digital inclusion organizations

Levin and Downes are correct that the digital divide is back in the news. Democratic candidates and policymakers are indeed offering their proposals to address this persistent divide. That is a good thing. However, as researchers who study digital inequalities in rural and urban communities across the U.S., we want to ensure that this national debate includes the voices of those most impacted by the digital divide. In stark contrast to Levin and Downes’ claims that low-income people are simply too uneducated to understand the importance of home broadband access, various studies have shown that these communities are extremely aware of the importance of having internet access -- they simply cannot afford even the low-cost options for in-home access. This is why ongoing research is needed to examine the everyday experiences of low-income people and their challenges paying for the high cost of broadband at home.

Colin Rhinesmith is an assistant professor in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. His work is focused on the social, community, and policy aspects of information and communication technology, particularly in areas related to digital equity and community technology. He has been a Google Policy Fellow and an adjunct research fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute in Washington, D.C. He was also a faculty research fellow with the Benton Foundation and a faculty associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Information in Society Fellow, a researcher with the Center for People and Infrastructures, and a research scholar with the Center for Digital Inclusion.

Bibi Reisdorf is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research examines digital inequalities in highly technologized countries with a focus on marginalized communities, often comparing populations across various countries. Recent publications have focused on Internet access and uses in urban low-income communities, the potential of digital media for prison populations reentering society, as well as how attitudes affect Internet use. She obtained her D.Phil. in Information, Communication, and the Social Sciences from the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Dr. Reisdorf worked as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Media and Information and the Assistant Director of the Quello Center at Michigan State University before joining UNC Charlotte.

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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