Digital Inclusion Studies

I’ve been contacted by a number of communities this year that want to talk about finding solutions for homes that don’t have broadband. It’s an interesting phenomenon because policy people have talked about the digital divide for the past twenty years, but I’m getting serious inquiries asking about ways to solve the problem rather than just quantifying the number of homes without broadband. I’m sure part of the reason for this is the realization of the number of homes where students were unable to continue schoolwork at home or where workers couldn’t transition to home due to the lack of broadband, lack of computers, or other reasons.

The first thing I recommend to a community is to identify the primary reasons in their community for why homes don’t have good broadband. There have been studies done over the years that have identified a number of different reasons why homes don’t have broadband. Some of the reasons why homes don’t have broadband include:

  • Some homes can’t afford the price of broadband
  • Some homes can’t afford to buy, maintain, and replace computers.
  • Some people don’t know how to use computers and need training before they are comfortable using a computer and a broadband connection.
  • Some people are intimidated by technology.
  • Some people are worried about security and are afraid of breaches of their privacy.
  • Some people are satisfied with access to the broadband they have at locations outside of the home.
  • Some people are satisfied with the broadband they get using their smartphone.
  • And some people simply have no interest or desire to go online (although this is often a convenient way to not admit some of the issues above).

As you might imagine, the prevalence of these issues differs widely by community. A community can’t start crafting digital inclusion solutions until they understand which of these issues are the primary drivers in their community for why homes don’t have broadband.

The easiest way to quantify the percentage of homes that fit into the various categories is with a well-designed statistically valid survey. To be useful, such a survey will have to be done differently than simple surveys that might measure things like existing broadband penetration rates. Here are a few ideas on how to best conduct this kind of survey:

  • Several studies have shown that most people without home broadband have more than one reason why they don’t have it. A survey ought to ask people to explore all of the reasons why people don’t have home broadband.
  • The survey should then be designed to delve more deeply into the primary reasons somebody doesn’t have broadband. That means a different set of questions would be asked about each of the above reasons why folks don’t have broadband. For example, the survey might dig deeper into the two primary reasons given by each respondent.

The results of this kind of survey is likely going to be eye-opening for most cities. It’s easy for policymakers to have preconceptions about why homes don’t have broadband, and it’s likely that the real issues are different than what policymakers assume.

Another important step in figuring out digital inclusion solutions is to understand where the needs are in a city. I see cities today gathering interesting demographic data that can be mapped. For example, I’ve seen a lot of school systems that have identified the address of every K12 student who doesn’t have adequate broadband or who doesn’t have a home computer. Understanding where these homes are is a needed component to finding a solution. Cities often have access to a wide array of other demographic data that might help to understand where homes most need a broadband solution. It’s hard to know ahead of time which data will be the most useful, but cities have data like a list of homes that qualify for reduced lunch programs, homes that are receiving rent or a housing subsidy, homes that are occupied by the elderly, etc.

After all of this research, the hard work starts to start solving the digital divide. But understanding the primary issues driving lack of access means that programs can be devised to tackle the most important issues first. If the primary driver of home broadband is lack of home computers, then a program to get computers into home will likely be effective. If the primary driver in a community is lack of computer skills, then computer training courses ought to help the most people.

A well-designed digital inclusion study is the first place to start for a community that wants to solve the digital divide. You can’t fix the problems until you’ve identified them.

One thought on “Digital Inclusion Studies

  1. It’s important to differentiate between having residential advanced telecom service and personal computers. They are two separate issues. Personal computers have been widely available since the 1980s and their prices have fallen. However, an entire generation has shunned them and it’s become quite apparent now the home has become the classroom for K-12 students.

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