Biden Administration Should Focus on The Ability to Pay for Broadband

A new article this week from Law360, titled “Biden FCC Shifts Broadband Focus From Geography To Price” describes the shift from the Trump administration’s focus on deploying broadband infrastructure in rural areas to the Biden administration’s policy focus on helping those who are unable to afford the cost of broadband.

Based on my own research and those of my colleagues, this is a much welcome and needed shift in policy priorities to ensure that those most impacted by the digital divide, particularly during the pandemic, can gain access to high-speed broadband at affordable costs.

The Ability to Pay for Broadband

In 2019, my colleagues and I published an article in the journal Communication Research and Practice, titled “The Ability to Pay for Broadband.” Based on our studies in communities across the country, we found that “although those with a limited monthly budget have an acute understanding of the value of home broadband, the costs associated with home broadband service make it difficult for them to afford.” We went on to argue that “ability to pay provides a framework for understanding the local, cultural drivers and barriers to broadband adoption in low-income communities.”

A summary of the article including our study’s main findings and implications of the research for digital inclusion policy and practice can be found on the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s website.

Connecting Digital Equity and Racial Justice

As we talk about the barriers to broadband adoption, it’s also critically important to recognize that digital equity is a racial justice issue. As we argued in our recent blog post for Benton announcing our 2020 report, titled “Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond” we also recommend that the Biden Administration connect their focus on broadband and the economy to their racial justice agenda. As we wrote,

“To inform this work, the next administration should develop a digital equity and racial justice task force that brings together social workers, public librarians, community organizers, and other community-care practitioners to develop strategies and tools to promote digital and racial equity in communities most impacted by the pandemic.”

In the post, we elaborate on the following four recommendations to help inform this policy agenda:

  • Make broadband affordable for low-income communities of color.
  • Support second chances for economic success through digital literacy programs.
  • Ensure care workers receive training and support to help promote digital and racial equity
  • Make federal funding opportunities available for digital inclusion organizations.

We look forward to seeing how the Biden Administration will move forward to tackle these important and complex issues.

New Report on Digital Equity Ecosystems

Benton reportI am excited to announce that our Community Informatics Lab at Simmons University has authored a new report, titled “Growing Healthy Digital Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond,” which was published last week by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

In the report, my co-author, Susan Kennedy and I present findings from a survey of individuals representing a diverse group of organizations across the United States that have self-identified as being part of either a formal, informal, or emerging digital inclusion coalition. The purpose of their study was to better understand the role these coalitions have played in supporting what they are calling “digital equity ecosystems” in their communities during the challenges of the pandemic.

In our Digital Beat blog post announcing the report, Susan and I argued that based on our report, “we believe there are several federal policy recommendations that we can make moving forward. On their transition-team website, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have made it a priority to promote universal broadband. In order to achieve this goal, we argue that the new administration must connect its economic recovery agenda to its work to promote racial equity.”

We conclude the post by sharing the following four steps that the new administration should take to make their economic recovery and racial equity priorities a reality:

  1. Make broadband affordable for low-income communities of color.
  2. Support second chances for economic success through digital literacy programs.
  3. Ensure care workers receive training and support to help promote digital and racial equity.
  4. Make federal funding opportunities available for digital inclusion organizations.

Read the full descriptions of each recommendations in our full blog post on the Benton Institute for Internet & Society’s website.

Digital Equity Ecosystems

Digital Equity EcosystemsRecently, in our Community Informatics Lab at Simmons University we have started a new research project to investigate what we are calling Digital Equity Ecosystems. This project builds on the excellent work of researchers and practitioners in the Digital Equity Lab at The New School, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Detroit Community Technology Project, and others. We define digital equity ecosystems as the following:

Digital Equity Ecosystems are interactions between individuals, populations, communities, and their larger sociotechnical environments that all play a role in shaping the digital inclusion work in local communities to promote more equitable access to technology and social and racial justice.

Our research in this area seeks to understand the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and families without household internet access and how digital inclusion coalitions across the nation have responded in turn. The goal of the study is to provide data and evidence to help local, state, and federal policymakers in the U.S. develop more effective digital equity strategies nationwide.

Findings from the study will also be useful for key stakeholders working to promote economic and racial justice in communities struggling with poverty during COVID-19 and after the pandemic ends. This is because, as we know from scholars such as Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Chris Gilliard, Virginia Eubanks, and many others who have noted that, the digital divide is rooted in systemic injustices and structural inequalities in our society. Therefore, we are keenly focused on the social, rather than the technological, solutions to digital inequality. We believe that a social ecological approach using participatory methods rooted in community knowledge and expertise is the pathway forward in this approach.

The publication of the first phase of our research to be published in 2020 is supported by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

New Article in Media, Culture & Society

Media, Culture & SocietySharon Strover, Brian Whitacre, Alexis Schrubbe and I have a new journal article in Media, Culture & Society. The article, titled “The Digital Inclusion Role of Rural Libraries: Social Inequities Through Space and Place” features findings from our two-year research grant (award #RE-31-16-0014-16), funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to examine how rural libraries address the challenges of Internet connectivity with hotspot lending programs.

Here’s a link to the abstract, which is also included below:

“A great deal of scholarship on broadband deployment and federal policies has positioned rural America through a deficit framework: rural parts of the country have older populations (and therefore not tech savvy), are poor (and therefore justifiably ignored by the market), too remote (therefore outside of legitimate profit-making enterprise), and losing population (and therefore significance). This research examines rural Internet connectivity through the lens of local libraries lending hotspots for Internet connectivity. Qualitative data gathered in 24 rural communities in Kansas and Maine undercut simplistic notions regarding how communication systems operate in environments ignored by normative market operations. Financial precarity and pressures from social and economic institutions compel rurally based individuals and families to assemble piecemeal Internet presence and connectivity. The public library plays a crucial role in providing Internet resources and stands out in the rural environment as a site that straddles public trust and local.”

Broadband Workarounds

In our new article, titled “The Ability of Pay for Broadband” in the journal Communication Research and Practice, my co-authors Dr. Bianca Reisdorf, Madison Bishop, and I introduce a term that we are calling broadband workarounds based on the findings from our research. The concept builds on research by the late Les Gasser who I had the privilege of working with during my doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Here is an excerpt from our article, which is freely available online for the next four weeks:

“Despite significant barriers to broadband access, there is evidence that low-income individuals and families, as well as the community-based organisations who serve them, will go to great lengths to access broadband. These factors indicate that individuals and families in low-income areas understand the value of broadband but simply cannot afford it – a sentiment that was reflected in interviews, focus groups, and the survey. Participants described what we are calling broadband workarounds, which are broadband-related activities such as splitting the cost of broadband with neighbours, using a friend’s home internet connection, and relying on public computing sites such as libraries and other community technology centres. Similar to Gasser’s notion of ‘work-arounds’ (1986) as ‘adhoc strategies to solve immediate and pressing problems’ (p. 216), we use the term broadband workarounds to describe the everyday strategies that participants described to address the cost-related barriers to broadband. Local digital inclusion organisations, including public libraries, work to alleviate the need for broadband workarounds by creating and connecting people to low-cost broadband options. A focus on these local community assets as a starting point for broadband policy can sharpen awareness of the innovative solutions that already exist in low-income areas.”

UPDATE (6/19/19): After sharing this blog post via Twitter today, John Horrigan responded in this tweet by noting that he had called “online access at the library part of a ‘workaround ecosystem'” for work he did a few years ago with Monica Anderson at the Pew Research Center, which can be found online here.