The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cities, not rural areas, are the real Internet deserts

The solution to the digital divide is not more broadband, but persuading non-users to join the Internet society

(Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)
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The “digital divide” is back in the news, with both Democratic presidential candidates and incumbent government officials promising billions to provide high-speed Internet to millions of Americans in rural areas who don’t currently have access to it at home.

The digital divide, however, is not exclusively or even most significantly a rural problem. Due to inaccurate coverage maps, it is difficult to know where specifically access is lacking. But we know from regular Census Bureau surveys that three times as many households in urban areas remain unconnected as in rural areas. And regardless of geography, access isn’t the main reason these homes are without Internet service. The vast majority of U.S. homes without broadband service could have it today, but they don’t want it. The real problem is convincing those who are offline of the value of being part of our digital life.

The singular focus on infrastructure deployment distracts policymakers from the actual explanation for why so many Americans are still offline.

To put the access in perspective: In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only a fifth of respondents said they don’t have broadband at home because they can’t get it. Based on Census Bureau and Federal Communications Commission data, that correlates to between 4.5 and 7.5 million households, total, with no high-speed provider. For context, 3 million American homes still don’t have indoor plumbing, a problem the U.S. has been working a lot longer to solve.

Over the last 20 years, in fact, home broadband in the U.S. has witnessed one of the fastest adoptions of a new technology ever seen. That’s especially impressive given that the FCC has, as new technologies and services have been deployed, repeatedly increased the speeds required to qualify as broadband. The current minimum is 125 times faster than what the agency started with in 1999.

Yet even at the current standard, nearly 200 million Americans have broadband at home, where it’s useful for everything from entertainment to homework. And there is ample reason to believe the broadband picture will continue to improve, especially as high-speed mobile technologies fill in some of the gaps.

The remaining Americans who can’t get wired broadband will have new options soon. In the last several months, for example, the FCC has offered three different solutions to the rural access problem: low-orbiting satellites it argues will offer service to remote areas, merger conditions it claims will provide 99% of Americans service at four times the current minimum speed within six years, and $20 billion of public infrastructure money, to be spent over 10 years.

Let’s also be clear about who isn’t connected. According to John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute who’s been measuring broadband use for many years, our adoption problem is more urban than rural by a factor of three. That’s because those without home Internet service are predominantly poorer, older, and less educated Americans — demographics more prevalent in cities.

We know not only who is offline but also why. Over the last decade both the Pew Research Center and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration have been carefully tracking the reasons respondents give for not having taken the digital plunge.

Early on, the most frequent reason was that broadband service was too expensive. But the percentage of non-adopters who cite affordability as their principal or even a significant reason has declined rapidly.

In part, that’s because the FCC, starting in 2016, shifted Universal Service support from subsidized telephone service to subsidized broadband. Today, low-income Americans can receive about $10 each month to help pay for a qualified broadband connection, wired or wireless. As of 2017, nearly 11 million households were taking advantage of this program, known as Lifeline.

At the same time, many Internet providers began offering service targeting low-income consumers. Of these, the leader has been Comcast. It began its Internet Essentials (IE) program in 2011, and has since connected eight million low-income consumers, who pay just under $10 a month.

Last month, Comcast announced it was doubling the pool of eligible consumers — basically, any home already receiving some kind of federal aid, including food stamps or Medicaid. The company expects to add millions of new IE subscribers in the near-term.

So, increasingly the digital divide isn’t about access or affordability. What then? In both private and governmental surveys, a growing number of the holdouts cite a lack of relevance. According to the most recent NTIA report, as of 2017 the percentage of respondents who say they don’t have broadband at home because they have “no need” or “no interest” reached almost 60%, nearly double the percentage who consistently gave that response from 2003 to 2009.

We think most of those are wrong, but convincing them otherwise is the real challenge for policymakers — and the hardest one yet.

As we’ve written before, the relevance problem is largely a problem of education — technical and otherwise. If you’re not familiar with computing devices — even smartphones and tablets —it’s likely you don’t know just how much valuable information is available online, much of it for free. (That’s why Comcast’s Internet Essentials program wisely includes free in-person and online digital literacy training and the option to purchase a low-cost computer.)

Notably, those without Internet service are more likely to be heavy users of government services, for example, and may not realize that more and more of those services are available online. Non-adopting parents, likewise, may not understand how essential the Internet has become for students, especially those in underperforming schools.

If you’ve never been online, you don’t know what kinds of opportunities broadband offers for job skills, health information, smarter shopping, civic engagement, or using e-government services as an alternative to the costly process of visiting government offices in person.

As ever-faster wired and wireless connections proliferate, future services could disproportionately improve the quality of life for the remaining non-adopters — particularly for older, poorer, and more geographically isolated Americans. For example, next-generation applications will focus on connected homes and digital health care — essential tools for helping seniors age in place. Doing so on-line holds the hope of improving outcomes while lowering public costs.

That’s one of the reasons that everyone should care about closing the real digital divide. The cost to taxpayers of non-adoption is high, and likely to increase. It’s in our best interests —socially as well as economically — to help make clear to the digitally disconnected the true value of inclusion, and make available the digital skills training that is key to overcoming the adoption barrier.

But that requires focusing on the actual reason a digital divide still exists.

Blair Levin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and led the team that produced the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan. Larry Downes is co-author, most recently, of “Pivot to the Future: Discovering Value and Creating Growth in a Disrupted World” (Public Affairs 2019).