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.

The Census Bureau and the Digital Divide

John Horrigan recently wrote an interesting article in The Daily Yonder that cited the results of a survey done by the Census Bureau. The agency conducts an annual survey called the American Community Survey (ACS) of 3.5 million households. In recent years the survey has included a few questions about broadband. The most recent ACS survey included questions about the digital divide. The results are at first glance a bit surprising.

The survey shows that more than 20.4 million homes have no broadband subscription at home. The survey shows that 5.1 million homes with no broadband connection are rural and 15.3 million homes are non-rural. Anybody who tracks rural broadband instantly doesn’t think those numbers can be right. However, the Census Bureau uses its own definition of rural which is different than the way most of the world thinks or rural versus urban.

According to the Census Bureau definition, rural is everything that is not urban. The Census bureau looks at the country by regional clusters of population. They count two kinds of urban areas – urbanized areas (UAs) are clusters with 50,000 or more people and urban clusters (UCs) which have between 2,500 and 50,000 people. Most of us would consider many of the UCs to be rural because within this category are a lot of rural county seats and the immediately surrounding areas. The Census statistics count a lot of people who live just outside of towns as urban when our industry considers homes past the last cable company connection as rural.

Horrigan interpets the results of the Census Bureau survey to mean that affordability is a bigger reason today than connectivity for why people don’t have broadband. He reached that conclusion by considering a recent Pew Research poll on the same topic that shows that more homes cite reasons other than availability as reasons they don’t have broadband.

The Pew Research survey asked households why they don’t have broadband. Respondents could supply more than one response.

  • 50% claimed that price was a major factor and 21% cited this as the primary reason.
  • 45% said that their smartphone could do everything they need.
  • 43% said they had good access to the Internet outside the home.
  • 31% said they couldn’t afford a computer.
  • Only 22% said that they couldn’t order a broadband connection, and only 7% said that was the primary reason they didn’t have broadband.

The Census Bureau also correlated their results with household income, and it’s not surprising that low-income households have a much lower broadband connection rate. The Census Bureau survey showed that only 59% of homes that make less than $20,000 per year have broadband. The subscription rate for all households making more than $20,000 is 88%.

Interestingly, the FCC doesn’t ask why people don’t have broadband. They interpret their mission to measure broadband availability and they count homes with or without broadband connections. This raises a few questions. What exactly is the FCC’s mandate from Congress – to get America has connection to reach the Internet or to make sure that America makes those broadband connections? I read the FCC’s mandate from Congress to have some of both goals. If availability is not the primary reason why homes don’t have broadband, the FCC might get more bang from their buck by putting some effort into digital inclusion programs. According to the Horrigan article, there are now more homes that can’t afford broadband than homes that don’t have a connectivity option.

This implies the need for a much-improved Lifeline Fund. The current Lifeline program is likely not making a big difference in digital inclusion. It provides a small monthly subsidy of $9.25 per month for qualifying households to save money on either their telephone bill or their broadband bill. It’s becoming increasingly hard to qualify for Lifeline because the big telcos like AT&T are backing out of the program. Some cable companies provide low-cost cable lines to homes with school students, but to nobody else – and cable companies don’t operate outside of towns.

In addition to a more effective Lifeline program, digital inclusion also means getting computers into homes that can’t afford them. I’ve written before about the non-profit group E2D that provides computers to school students in Charlotte, NC. Perhaps some of the Universal Service Fund could be used to assist effective groups like E2D to get more computers to more households.

My firm CCG conducts surveys and we’ve seen anecdotal evidence in a few recent surveys in poor rural counties that a lot of homes don’t buy the slow DSL option available to them because of price. These homes tell us that price mattered more than connectivity. I don’t have any easy answer for the best way to promote digital inclusion. But there are folks in the country who have made amazing progress in this area and perhaps the FCC should consider giving such groups some help. At a minimum, the FCC needs to recognize that now that most homes have a broadband connection that price is a major barrier for the majority of those who are not connected.