Challenges to Achieving Digital Equity or “Why Covered Populations Are Covered”

In 2021, a Pew Research Center survey found that seven percent of U.S. adults did not use the internet at all. Internet non-adoption is linked to a number of demographic variables, but it is strongly connected to age, educational attainment, and household income.

In community-driven efforts to address digital inequities, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For this reason it is important to disaggregate data so solutions can be identified, evaluated, and expanded to address the needs of those who are the most disconnected.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Digital Equity Act recognizes eight “covered populations” as disproportionately experiencing digital inequity. These groups are to be a focus of efforts supported through grants and planning processes:

  • Individuals living in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.
  • Individuals 60 years of age or older.
  • Veterans.
  • Individuals with disabilities.
  • Individuals with barriers to the English language (including English language learners and those with low literacy).
  • Members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
  • Individuals residing in rural areas.
  • Individuals incarcerated in non-federal correctional facilities.

These groups experience difficulties accessing the internet for varied yet overlapping reasons. Below, we provide data that explains why these populations are being targeted for digital equity efforts.

Households With Low Incomes

In the United States, people living in poverty tend to be clustered in certain regions, counties, and neighborhoods rather than evenly spread across the nation. Research has shown that living in areas where poverty is prevalent creates impediments beyond people’s individual circumstances. Concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, and unemployment. As a result, economic conditions in very poor areas not only limit opportunities for poor residents but also replicate themselves.

An important dimension of poverty is its persistence over time. There are 341 persistently poor counties in the United States (comprising 10.9 percent of all U.S. counties). The geography of persistent-poverty counties is strongly associated with historical patterns of rural settlement going back centuries. Historically, the large majority (approximately 85 percent) of persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for about 15 percent of all nonmetro counties.

Poverty does not strike all demographics equally.

  • In 2018, 10.6 percent of men and 12.9 percent of women lived in poverty in the United States. The poverty rate for married couples in 2018 was only 4.7 percent—but the poverty rate for single-parent families with no wife present was 12.7 percent, and for single-parent families with no husband present, it was 24.9 percent.
  • In 2021, the poverty rate for people living with a disability was 24.9 percent. That’s about 4 million people living with a disability in poverty.
  • In 2021, the poverty rate for seniors was over ten percent.
  • According to 2021 U.S. Census data, the highest poverty rate by race is found among Native Americans (24.3 percent), with Blacks (19.5 percent) having the second-highest poverty rate, and Hispanics (of any race) having the third- highest poverty rate (17.1 percent). Whites had a poverty rate of 10 percent, while Asians had a poverty rate of 9.3 percent.
  • The USDA estimated that 10.2 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2021. This means that approximately 13.5 million households had difficulty with access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line.

Some 15 percent of home broadband users in the United States said they had trouble paying for their high-speed internet service during the coronavirus outbreak. That includes 34 percent of those with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

For adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year, roughly a quarter (24 percent) say they don’t own a smartphone, and more than four in ten do not have home broadband services (43 percent) or a desktop or laptop computer (41 percent). By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a quarter of home broadband users with annual household incomes ranging from $30,000 to just under $50,000 said they had trouble paying for broadband service, as did 8 percent with household incomes ranging from $50,000 to $74,999.

A 2021 national survey of low- and lower-middle-income households asked these households what they pay for service and to identify monthly service fees that would be too expensive for their budgets. That survey found a range of perspectives on affordability:

  • 40 percent of households whose incomes were below $50,000 annually said they could not afford any monthly fee;
  • 22 percent reported that $25 per month would be a comfortable figure for their household budgets; and
  • 38 percent said that figures that align roughly with lower-cost market rates (between $55 and $70 per month) would be affordable for them.

Older Adults

Researchers at the Humana Foundation and AARP’s Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) found that nearly half of older Americans live with technological barriers. And nearly 22 million American seniors do not have wireline broadband access at home. There are poignant correlations between digital disengagement and race, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration status, rural residence, and, of course, income.

  • Among older Americans, the two strongest predictors of lack of broadband were low educational attainment (less than a high school degree) and income below $25,000. Both groups of people were more than ten times as likely to be offline at home as the reference categories for people with higher education or higher incomes, respectively.
  • Race was a significant factor as well. Black people were 2.6 times as likely to be offline, and Latinos were 3.4 times as likely to be offline, as White people.
  • Living in areas of high concentrations of poverty was associated with a 6.7 times higher likelihood of lacking home broadband, while living in Census tracts with over 50 percent Black-Americans corresponded to a 3.7 times higher likelihood.
  • Health status plays a role, with people reporting poor-to-middling health being over three times as likely to be offline, as well as people reporting functional impairment (twice as likely), frequent depressive symptoms (1.5 times as likely), and Medicaid enrollment (2.7 times as likely).
  • Household composition and place of residence are important factors. Older adults who are single (2.7 times as likely) or live in rural areas (1.6 times as likely) have elevated odds of lacking home internet service.

Researchers have found that insufficient practical training in technology use and the attendant difficulty in using computers both contribute to these disparities. Furthermore, ageism reduces self-efficacy for technology use, further reducing confidence in one’s ability to use technology; physical and mental limitations can make technology harder to use; and people who did not grow up using technology may devalue the benefits and usefulness of these services, or see the barriers as greater than the benefits without intentional support and opportunities for benefit.


As of 2017, there were approximately 18.2 million veterans in the United States, constituting approximately 7.3 percent of the adult U.S. population.

An analysis of 2016 American Community Survey data found that U.S. veterans lagged in internet access when compared with non-veterans. More recently, the lack of access to the internet became more visible when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) tried to employ telemedicine and other technology-enabled approaches to serving veterans.

In a 2019 report assessing broadband access and adoption, the Federal Communications Commission found that a significant number of veterans (2.2 million households) lacked access to fixed broadband, mobile broadband, or both. Specifically, for 92.5 percent of veterans, at least one provider of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed broadband services was available, but only 78.4 percent of veterans had 10 Mbps/3 Mbps mobile LTE broadband coverage. Among households with veterans, approximately 85 percent, or 14.4 million, reported that they had paid connections to the internet in their homes. (In comparison to non-veteran households, veteran households had at that time a slightly higher percentage subscription rate for fixed broadband.) However, households with veterans subscribed to mobile broadband services at lower rates than households without veterans. The FCC found that more veterans used a mobile device (62.2 percent) to connect to the internet in any location, compared with using a desktop (37.8 percent) or laptop (44.4 percent) computer.

For those veterans who lacked a broadband connection, the FCC reported that barriers to broadband adoption included insufficient digital literacy, perception of irrelevance, price, and lack of deployment where they live.

  • Two-thirds of veteran households without internet users indicated that the primary reason was lack of interest or necessity. The tendency of veterans to be older than the general population, coupled with digital literacy challenges for senior citizens, may make digital literacy an especially important challenge for veterans’ broadband adoption.
  • Veterans with the lowest incomes are most likely to go without broadband at home, indicating that price is a significant barrier to adoption.
  • Veterans were more likely than non-veterans to cite lack of a computer (or an inadequate computer) as the primary barrier to subscribing to an internet service.
  • Veterans residing in rural areas are likely to have more limited access to fixed and mobile broadband services in the home.

Differences between veterans’ and non-veterans’ broadband adoption, the FCC found, reflected both the overall demographics of the populations and issues unique to veterans. For example, while veterans were more likely to live in a household without children and the mobile broadband subscription rate for these households lags behind the rate for non-veteran households without children, veteran households with children subscribed to mobile broadband at higher rates than non-veteran households with children. Income also played a role: veterans were less likely to be among those with the lowest incomes (in the lowest quintile), a group that tends to subscribe to fixed and mobile broadband at lower rates; veterans were more often in the middle of the income distribution (third and fourth quintiles) groups that adopt fixed broadband at higher rates.

Veteran households were more likely to be men living alone than non-veteran households. Male-only households at the time subscribed to fixed and mobile broadband at lower rates than average, and veteran male-only households subscribed to both fixed and mobile broadband at lower rates than non-veteran male-only households. Fixed and mobile broadband subscription rates were also lower for female-only households in general, but veteran female-only households were more likely to subscribe to fixed and mobile broadband than non-veteran female-only households.

Individuals With Disabilities

In 20218 more than 40 million people in the United States were living with a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, even as majorities of these Americans report having certain technologies, the digital divide between those who have a disability and those who do not remains for some devices:

  • Some 62 percent of adults with a disability say they own a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 81 percent of those without a disability.
  • Just 72 percent of adults with a disability say they own a smartphone, compared with 88 percent of those without a disability.
  • Seventy-two percent of adults with a disability report having high-speed internet at home, compared with 78 percent of adults without a disability.
  • Roughly a quarter of Americans with disabilities (26 percent) say they have high-speed internet at home, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer, and a tablet, compared with 44 percent of those who report not having a disability.
  • Americans with disabilities are three times as likely as those without a disability to say they never go online (15 percent versus 5 percent). And while three-quarters of Americans with disabilities report using the internet on a daily basis, this share rises to 87 percent among those who do not have a disability.
  • Older Americans are more likely than younger adults to report having a disability. And these older age groups generally have lower levels of digital adoption than the nation as a whole.

Additionally, people living with a disability can find it harder to find a job, limiting their income, access to technology, and opportunity to develop digital skills. In 2017 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), only 53.3 percent of deaf working- age adults were employed, compared with 75.8 percent of hearing people. Equally as important, 42.9 percent of deaf people have opted out of the labor force, more than double the rate of hearing people (20.8 percent).

Even for those with access who have adopted broadband, the internet still may not be a welcoming place. There have been many lawsuits over the years claiming that websites are not accessible to those with disabilities.

Individuals With Language Barriers

English remains the dominant language on the internet, and those with limited English- language proficiency face additional barriers in using the internet.

In 2019, more than 44.9 million immigrants lived in the United States. One-third (14.8 million) were low income, meaning that their family’s income was below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. These immigrants face challenges including language barriers and lack of access to information. In 2019, approximately 46 percent of immigrants ages five and older (approximately 20 million people) were Limited English Proficient (LEP). Immigrants accounted for 81 percent of the country’s 25.5 million LEP individuals. In 2019, 15 percent of low-income immigrants lived in an unbanked household—that is, one in which no household member had a checking or savings account—in which the process of paying for monthly service can be more difficult.

According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC; also known as the Survey of Adult Skills), as of 2015, 36 percent of native- born, native-language adults reached higher levels of proficiency solving problems in digital environments or using digital tools compared to just 12 percent of U.S. residents who are foreign-born and speak a language other than English.35 Immigrants who speak a language other than English in the home were also four times as likely as English speakers to have no experience with computers.

In 2016, the Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that 10 percent of families headed by Hispanic immigrants had no access to the internet, compared with 7 percent of U.S.-born Latinos.

The National League of Cities identified a number of key factors that make it harder to bridge the digital divide:

  • About 23 percent of immigrants are undocumented. Because of their legal status and a fear of deportation, this segment of the immigrant community has a strong desire for privacy. This can make it difficult to reach these people and connect them with services that could help bridge the digital divide. And many programs ask for personal information that members of this community may not be comfortable sharing.
  • Due to their immigration status and fears of deportation, many immigrants live “underground” and outside established support systems, eschewing programs that might benefit them, like digital equity efforts.
  • Many governmental programs operate only in English. Language access, including in public information campaigns, advertisements, and program enrollment processes, is a driving force in keeping LEP residents from getting digitally connected.

Members of Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey,37 Black and Hispanic adults in the United States remain less likely than White adults to say they own a traditional computer or have high-speed internet at home. But there are no racial and ethnic differences when it comes to other devices, such as smartphones and tablets:

  • Eighty percent of White adults report owning a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 69 percent of Black adults and 67 percent of Hispanic adults.
  • Eighty percent of White adults also report having a broadband connection at home, while smaller shares of Black and Hispanic adults say the same—71 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
  • When it comes to accessing the internet, mobile devices play a larger role for Hispanic adults compared with White adults. A quarter of Hispanics are “smartphone-only” internet users—meaning they own a smartphone but lack traditional home broadband services. By comparison, 12 percent of White adults and 17 percent of Black adults fall into this category.

In extensive research on the impact of racial discrimination on home-internet adoption, Free Press found, in 2016, that people in many communities of color lagged behind, even after accounting for income differences:

  • While 81 percent of Whites and 83 percent of Asians had home internet at that time, only 70 percent of Hispanics, 68 percent of Blacks, 72 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives, and 68 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders were connected at home.
  • The median household incomes of Whites ($62,950) and Asians ($77,166) were far higher than those of Hispanics ($45,148) and Blacks ($36,898). However, these differences in income across race and ethnicity did not explain the entirety of this digital divide.
  • There was still a racial/ethnic digital divide even among people in the lowest income quintile. Among those with annual family incomes below $20,000, 58 percent of low-income Whites had home internet access, versus just 51 percent of Hispanics and 50 percent of Black people in the same income bracket.
  • This adoption gap existed between people of these races and ethnicities in all income strata, but the gap was largest among the poorest people in America.
  • Low-income households and people of color were less likely to have home internet connections. But if they did connect at home, they were more likely to rely solely on mobile wireless. While 29 percent of low-income internet- connected households were mobile-only, just 15 percent of households earning more than $100,000 were mobile-only.

Bias by internet service providers further exacerbates the impact of poverty: Internet providers prefer to serve areas that have higher incomes, so lower-income neighborhoods are often at a disadvantage in terms of accessing internet services even if individuals can afford them.39 Research has even shown that communities of color are more likely to pay higher rates for the same level of internet access in the same city, often only blocks away from where lower rates are charged.

A 2022 investigation by The Markup found that AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink, and CenturyLink disproportionately offered slow internet service to lower-income and least- White neighborhoods for the same price they offered speedier connections in other parts of town.

Individuals in Rural Areas

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 46 million U.S. residents living in rural areas make up 14 percent of the U.S. population. Historically, internet providers have underserved rural areas due to a myriad of factors, including smaller rural populations providing fewer customers, decreased rural adoption rates, and more difficult rural terrain in comparison to urban areas. Even when internet is available in rural areas, less competition among limited providers may result in higher prices and limited speed options for residents.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, rural adults remain less likely than suburban adults to have home broadband and less likely than urban adults to own a smartphone, tablet computer, or traditional computer. Roughly seven in ten rural Americans (72 percent) say they have a broadband internet connection at home. Rural residents go online less frequently than their urban counterparts: Eight in ten adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared with roughly nine in ten of those in urban areas (88 percent). In addition, three in ten or more urban (37 percent) and suburban (30 percent) residents say they are online almost constantly, while about a quarter of rural residents (23 percent) say the same.

In a 2018 Pew survey, adults who lived in rural areas were more likely to say access to high-speed internet was a major problem in their local community: 24 percent said this, compared with 13 percent of urban adults and 9 percent of suburban adults. Similar rates of concern about access to high-speed internet were shared by rural adults in both lower- and higher-income households, as well as by those with various levels of educational attainment.

These comparably lower levels of adoption among rural residents may be due to a unique feature of rural life. Even though rural areas are more wired today than in the past, current infrastructure does not support consistently dependable broadband access in many rural areas.

As noted previously, there are 341 persistently poor counties in the United States. And approximately 85 percent of persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for about 15 percent of all nonmetro counties. Persistently poor counties are more racially and ethnically diverse than counties that are not persistently poor.48 While minority groups make up a smaller share of the overall rural population compared with urban areas, the groups are often highly concentrated in persistent-poverty clusters.49 Nonmetro Blacks/African Americans had the highest incidence of poverty in 2019 (30.7 percent), while nonmetro American Indians/Alaska Natives had the second-highest rate (29.6 percent). The poverty rate for nonmetro Whites in 2019 was less than half as much (13.3 percent) of both of those other groups. Nonmetro Hispanics had the third-highest poverty rate of any individual race or ethnicity—21.7 percent.

Incarcerated Individuals

Through a series of acquisitions and mergers over three decades, prison technology companies like JPay and Global Tel Link (GTL) have dominated the prison telecommunications space, effectively becoming virtual monopolies. Anticompetitive practices have allowed corporations to gouge families with high prices and ancillary fees for prison phone calls, a practice that reportedly left one in three inmate families in debt.

Surrounded by a “digital moat,” incarcerated people are disadvantaged by a lack of access to training opportunities in digital skills otherwise available to the general public. The result is a returning prison population ill prepared for the challenges of reentering free society.

Although internet access is expanding in some corrections facilities, it is often still limited or prohibited by law.55 And even when internet access is available, the costs of internet use can be prohibitive.

Researchers Paolo Arguelles and Isabelle Ortiz-Luis find that inmates have little opportunity to engage with technology while behind bars. Correctional facilities partner with JPay and GTL to provide inmates with corrections-grade tablets preloaded with a selection of games and music, educational content, mental health and legal resources, and secure messaging services. In most cases, tablets come with a restrictive operating system configured so that inmates are only able to access the facility’s secure local area network (LAN). Inmates are unable to access the open internet.

Arguelles and Ortiz-Luis also found that the exploitative tactics of prison technology companies have spread to tablet programs. Although correctional facilities often receive tablets from companies free of charge to prisons and American taxpayers, the companies negotiate exclusive contracting deals with facilities, charging exorbitant prices for inmates to use the devices and pricing ebooks, games, videos, music, and messaging services well above their normal fair-market price. Every email requires paid “postage,” as does every attached image and additional page, with the price of a digital stamp raised around special days like Christmas and Mother’s Day. If families wish to spend time with an incarcerated loved one over video chat, JPay charges $10 for thirty minutes and $1 for one thirty-second “videogram.” By charging inmates and their families excessive fees to stay connected, companies exacerbate the issues their tablet program claims to help solve, disproportionately affecting lower-income families who may not be able to afford the costs of keeping in touch with loved ones.

On January 5, 2023, President Joe Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act to help ensure just and reasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in correctional and detention facilities across the country. Congress’s goal in passing the Martha Wright-Reed Act was to help reduce financial burdens that prevent incarcerated people from being able to communicate with loved ones and friends. The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering rules to implement the new law.

Importantly, the Federal Communications Commission hasn’t been the only venue in the fight for prison phone justice. Martha Wright decided to sue the Corrections Corporation of America and challenge the monopoly system that enabled telecommunications companies in the private prison system to charge high rates for inmate call services. In Martha Wright v. Corrections Corporation of America, the plaintiffs, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleged that these exclusive deals and high rates violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated.


As part of their digital equity planning, states are tasked with identifying barriers to broadband adoption that their covered populations face.

States’ plans need to establish measurable objectives for documenting and promoting, among each covered population, the achievement of digital equity in the minimum of five key barriers and needs:

  1. the availability of, and affordability of access to, fixed and wireless broadband technology;
  2. the online accessibility and inclusivity of public resources and services;
  3. digital literacy;
  4. awareness of, and the use of, measures to secure the online privacy of, and cybersecurity with respect to, an individual; and
  5. the availability and affordability of consumer devices and technical support for those devices.

As the discussion above illustrates, however, each single covered population may face multiple barriers and needs and many barriers and needs are experienced by multiple covered populations.

For a community focused on digital equity, broadband adoption is about understanding and responding to the connectivity needs of individuals. This entails surveying and engaging with community members, especially those that have traditionally underutilized broadband technology has been. Broadband adoption work is best done in coordination with other assistance programs with the aim of addressing people’s needs holistically.

The role of broadband adoption programs goes beyond simply stating the benefits of broadband or assuming that people will want to get online. Successful adoption programs—such as trainings, discount sign-ups, or device distribution events—often meet people where they are, encourage them, and show them how they can safely use the internet to improve their lives.