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Far too many American households still do not have home internet service--and the digital divide impacts students who desperately need access

Five action steps to shrink the digital divide

Far too many American households still do not have home internet service--including students who need high-speed internet for learning

Key points:

New research examining national attitudes toward home broadband and the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which offers discounts on home internet service and related equipment to low-income families, provides insights on how to close the digital divide and connect households to reliable high-speed internet.

Titled Mind the Gap: Closing the Digital Divide through affordability, access, and adoption, the report from Connected Nation (CN), with support from AT&T, provides new insights into why more than 30 million eligible households are not opting to access internet service at home or leverage the ACP. The findings are the culmination of quantitative and qualitative research from households in five select markets: San Francisco, Calif; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Milwaukee, Wis.; Cleveland, Ohio; and Charlotte, N.C. 

The data shows that, nationally, more than 1 in 4 low-income survey respondents do not subscribe to home internet service. This rate is higher in cities with lower median household incomes.

“It is all too easy for us to make assumptions about why a family or individual is not subscribing to high-speed internet,” said Tom Ferree, CN’s chairman & CEO. “But Connected Nation’s staff has worked in the space of digital equity and inclusion for more than 20 years, and we have learned in that time that the answer is not always the obvious one. This is a nuanced issue, and it’s critical for us to identify the pain points and work together to find solutions for not only expanding access to broadband but also helping people adopt and use the resources it offers.” 

“Too many people – particularly in our most vulnerable neighborhoods – aren’t accessing what the internet offers, like opportunities to apply for jobs, seek education, secure health care and so much more,” said Mylayna Albright, assistant vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility at AT&T. “By learning more about the barriers to internet adoption, we can continue to help provide targeted support and resources to connect more people to opportunity,”

Nearly 9 percent of low-income respondents surveyed said they don’t subscribe because the monthly cost of internet service is too high. While the ACP can help reduce the cost, the most common barrier to using the program was general awareness (35.8 percent are unfamiliar with ACP) and concerns about eligibility (30.5 percent of nonparticipating low-income households did not think they qualify).

However, 82.4 percent of the respondents who participate in the ACP say they were very satisfied or mostly satisfied with the program’s sign-up process, and that most use their internet connection for valuable resources such as homework, telework, participating in video meetings, and taking online classes.

The report offers five recommendations that can positively impact access and adoption of home internet service, particularly among the most vulnerable populations:

Services should be promoted by local, trusted entities. For many focus group participants, ISPs or the federal government are not likely to be trusted. An offer made by either of these entities is likely to be looked upon with skepticism. Plus, with fraudulent offers bombarding them every day, many consumers are wary of promises that seem too good to be true.

Promote digital equity programs in a variety of ways. Digital access programs must be promoted where their potential enrollees are. If an individual doesn’t go online, they are probably not going to see a social media ad. If individuals are not aware of a program, they can never benefit from it.

The benefits of home internet access need to be highlighted. For many households that do not subscribe to home internet service, the top reasons are the ability to go online someplace else or that a smartphone provides all the internet access they need. While a mobile device may suffice for streaming videos or social media, it creates a challenge when conducting research for school, filling out a job application, or sharing detailed information with a health care provider. In those instances, home internet service becomes a necessity.

Target the needs of populations who are least likely to subscribe to home internet service. There are several demographic groups who can benefit from improved home internet service, such as low-income households who find it difficult to afford home internet service. Promotions designed to get more people connected to home internet service must be targeted to the intended demographic; generalized advertising, or ads that fail to address the issues that specifically affect a given market segment, will not be effective in closing the digital divide.

Provide as much detail as possible, because potential enrollees want to know more. Many survey respondents and focus group participants who qualified for the ACP program said they had not explored enrolling due to the belief that they were ineligible for the program. Why waste the time and effort of filling out the application, they ask, if they know they are only going to be rejected?

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