Digital inclusion is one of the most pressing social justice issues in the United States. Though internet access is no longer a luxury but a daily necessity, more than one-quarter of U.S. homes are not connected. This is especially unfortunate for school-age children who live in low-income families. Being able to get online at home is absolutely essential for academic success from grade school through college. In addition, it is the way to find employment, get career training and access a host of other services that can help under resourced families become financially stable and upwardly mobile.
Fortunately, digital inclusion is beginning to receive more attention at the local, state and federal government levels. However, the digital divide will not be tackled easily, and the appropriate outreach to those on the wrong side of the divide varies from situation to situation. Providing in-home access for free or at an affordable price is a simple solution for some families, but to introduce others to the online world, serious marketing campaigns and labor-intensive digital training are required.
Don’t assume that every low-income family, or even every low-income family with school-age children, relates to technology, computers and the internet in the same way. Effective digital inclusion efforts must recognize at least four subsets within this population, each with its own unique set of needs.
1) Early Adopters
Several national studies indicate that low-income families with schoolchildren have a higher rate of broadband adoption than other low-income families; approximately half of them can access the internet at home. The cities that have the highest adoption rates are those in which discounted internet plans have been offered for a number of years. Such plans include Comcast’s Internet Essentials, started in 2011, and Cox’s Connect2Compete, which has been around since 2012.
Both Comcast and Cox have done extensive outreach in the public schools, which is how most of these families first learned of their offers. However, discounted plans are not available everywhere. Even in cities where they are offered, some low-income families live in buildings that do not have the necessary infrastructure in place to get connected. Still others make great sacrifices to pay market rate for internet subscriptions so their children can get online. Others rely solely on expensive smartphone data plans to connect their computers.
Though these early adopters may be currently connected, they should not be overlooked by digital inclusion efforts. Many struggle with outdated computers, lack necessary tech support and need ongoing training and resources. Many are also “underconnected” – they lack access to acceptable bandwidth speeds, or they experience service shutdowns because they are unable to keep up with their payments.
Additionally, these parents need help to protect their children from the dangers of the internet, assistance accessing their children’s school portals and resources to help students in their learning activities. Adults, too, need help to access online GED and college resources and assistance with job searches and career development options.
Digital inclusion practitioners will never be out of a job. Underresourced families will always need ongoing support to take advantage of all the internet has to offer.
2) The Uninformed
Some low-income families know they need to be online and can afford discounted internet plans but simply don’t know such plans are available. Bringing awareness to these families through resident sign-up and training events might have an immediate impact on the digital divide. ISPs such as Comcast, Cox and Google Fiber have staff members dedicated to this type of outreach in cities where they offer discounted internet services. They are seeking local partners to help them stage these types of awareness events.
3) The Financially Challenged
Other families recognize the need to be connected but truly cannot afford to do so. Even if most people do not consider $9.95 a month (plus tax) to be a huge sum, it can be quite a stretch for public housing families whose incomes are less than $1,000 a month. In addition, as mentioned, discounted Internet plans are not available in all communities.
With the FCC’s modernization of the Lifeline program, a $9.25 per month subsidy for broadband services is now available to eligible low-income families. One catch is that the subsidy can be used for either mobile or wired service, but not both – so the many families that rely on Lifeline for cellphone service can’t use it for wired broadband.
Essentially, the only way families in this category will be connected is for an outside party to pay for their internet service. This was the case for nearly 80 percent of the families brought online during the first year of ConnectHome, the broadband adoption initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Though no federal funds were available to support the initiative, cities, housing authorities, and corporate and philanthropy partners stepped up to provide connectivity at no charge to families in several pilot cities. They accomplished this by distributing Sprint hotspots and 4G-enabled tablets from T-Mobile, installing Wi-Fi systems in multifamily properties or purchasing Comcast Internet Essential Opportunity cards. (These cards are available in 3-, 6- and 12-month denominations.)
The cost of acquiring a computer, laptop or tablet is actually more of a barrier to connection than the cost of internet service. Thus, an effective digital inclusion strategy must include providing free or low-cost devices. One of the best ways to meet this need is through collecting and refurbishing used computers. Reuse is an effective way to provide inexpensive devices to low-income families, and it’s better for the environment than recycling. Some municipalities, such as Kansas City, Missouri, have dedicated themselves to this sort of endeavor with impressive results.
4) The Unconvinced
Lastly, some low-income families are able to afford a discounted internet connection but are simply not convinced they need one. This group includes those who have decided that access through a smartphone is sufficient. Though schoolchildren need internet connectivity and devices to close the “homework gap,” ultimately the adult heads of household must be convinced this is important. They must value access enough to dedicate limited financial resources to paying for an internet subscription. For broadband adoption efforts, this can be the most challenging group of all, representing a significant portion of households living on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The “unconvinced” group includes those who are unaware of all the benefits of internet connectivity. It also includes those who don’t realize how much more they can accomplish with a full-sized screen and keyboard than they can with a smartphone. Also in this group are those adults who are unfamiliar with or even intimidated by technology and therefore choose not to get involved with computers and the internet.
The only way to influence the unconvinced is through a long-term, dedicated educational and marketing effort. Multiple class sessions and, often, one-on-one tutoring are necessary to help them learn what is possible online and to gain the confidence they need to become productive internet users.
Digital inclusion efforts need dedicated leadership and “boots on the ground” to be executed successfully. Too many efforts focus on providing computers and connectivity but fail to factor in the social dynamic of broadband adoption. Hours and hours of time must be spent on training and technical support to bring the internet to the rest of America’s poorest families.
When President Obama announced the ConnectALL initiative, he declared a goal of connecting 20 million more Americans to the Internet. With a new administration in the White House, it’s a good time to help policymakers understand that a significant infusion of money is needed from the government, corporate and philanthropic sectors to get all Americans connected.
Michael Liimatta is co-founder of Connection for Good, a Kansas City nonprofit focusing on digital inclusion, and served as manager of ConnectHome, the broadband adoption pilot at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helping to get schoolchildren in public housing online in 27 cities and one tribal nation. Michael currently advises communities as they develop digital inclusion strategies.