Diving into Digital Equity: Lessons from Focus Groups

Friday, May 13, 2022

Weekly Digest

You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail every Friday.

Our guest author this week is Benton Senior Fellow John B. Horrigan

Round-Up for the Week of May 9-13, 2022

John Horrigan
Horrigan

Low-income Americans are discerning broadband consumers who are well-attuned to the nuances of service plans, in the midst of dealing with internet service bills that are often a burden on their household budgets. The indispensability of internet access — a need the pandemic has underscored — places service quality next to affordability in the minds of low-income consumers. This message comes through in focus groups of 22 low-income Americans conducted by EveryoneOn (see full report STATE OF DIGITAL EQUITY: Lessons from survey data and focus groups). The focus groups also explored other perspectives on the internet, such as the role of digital skills and trust in the online environment. Rounding out the research was a discussion with digital inclusion practitioners who have had to address the digital divide during the pandemic and now have to prepare for an influx of federal funds to promote digital equity.

Affordability and reliability go hand-in-hand

Broadband as an essential bill

For many low-income households, having broadband service is a balancing act. They know having service is important, but they want a service that meets household needs. Why pay for something that is not reliable? Does it make sense to stretch the budget in order to have better service? Focus group participants highlighted a trade-off between cost and reliability. For one participant, $ 120 per month was the price in her area that one had to pay for reliable service.

Others worried that low-cost subscription plans might not suit their household needs, with one recounting unsatisfying internet experiences when multiple devices in the household needed to use the internet connection simultaneously. Many felt that “you get what you pay for,” ie, low-cost service plans might result in inferior service quality. Several focus group participants were “skeptical because of scams” ​​when they saw advertisements for low-cost service. One noted that their internet service provider “gave a price and then they went up quite a bit.”

The realities underpinning these trade-offs become clearer in examining patterns of spending from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Between 1984 and 2014 household spending for low-income households fell 4.5% in real terms compared to a 2% increase for middle-income households. During this same time period, low-income households increased spending on housing and health care and decreased it for food, clothing, and transportation. Low-income households spent 35% of their budgets on housing in 1984 and 41% in 2014. One focus group participant says that the internet is “counted as an essential bill.” Another focus group participant said she told her kids: “We can’t buy shoes because we have to pay for the internet.”

Digital skills and trust shape how low-income consumers engage with the internet

Digital skills constitute an important pillar of digital inclusion

Digital skills constitute an important pillar of digital inclusion. Providing these training services, said digital inclusion practitioners, is central to their core missions. Those who need an affordable internet plan and a working computing device often need assistance in getting started online — from the basics of using the browser to information about how to ensure that clients can protect personal data.

Participants in focus groups thought about digital skills in several different ways. Younger people were confident in their online capabilities, but they also expressed concerns about whether their digital skills could keep pace with workforce demands. Many felt there were things they did not know about digital workplace applications, but thought employers would provide necessary training.

Two types of users had greater digital skills training needs. Spanish speakers, perhaps because they struggled with some English-language websites, had an interest in improving digital skills in the context of growing reliance on the internet. Older adults were the other group. They needed significant “upskilling” driven in large part by childcare responsibilities for grandchildren that became more important during the pandemic. With parents occupied with work (at home or not) and online school, grandparents added onsite tech support to their normal childcare duties.

Trust — in security of personal data and interacting with internet service providers — also loomed large for both digital inclusion practitioners and lower-income focus group participants. For practitioners, new internet users (particularly older ones) needed education on data security in order to fully engage with online applications. Their clients had significant concerns about whether their personal data or identities might be stolen.

The other part of trust involves learning about discount internet programs, such as those offered via the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The EveryoneOn national survey in the summer of 2021 found that just 25% of eligible households had heard of government-subsidized or discount internet programs. This makes communicating to these populations about the existence of these programs a priority. However, trust in internet service providers (ISPs) to convey reliable information is low. Just 10% of survey respondents said ISPs were highly trustworthy sources of information about discount programs and subsidies — far below the 28% figure for local public libraries. Focus group participants also said they often learned about programs for connectivity from their children’s schools — but nonetheless had difficulty signing up for these programs.

Crafting policy solutions to advance digital equity

Markets help create digital inequality

In the dry parlance of economics, digital inequity represents a market failure by which private firms produce too little of something (internet service plans and associated resources to ensure people can use digital tools) that has social value (widespread connectivity so that people can participate in civic and economic life). The typical solution would be non-market in nature, eg, government or philanthropy taking action. This framing of the problem invites a certain kind of avoidance; the problem seems to be no one’s fault and the solution no one’s job.

What’s the way through this? A place to start is to recognize that markets help create digital inequality, through tier-flattening (which has reduced the availability of low-cost service plans), underinvestment in unprofitable service areas, and marketing that invites mistrust from households on a tight budget. Another starting point is understanding the value of community-created solutions. Practitioners were clear about the need to develop solutions for the community by engaging with all community members. This means recognizing the digital divide foremost as a social policy problem, not a technological one. This raises a number of opportunities in fostering digital equity, while flagging two worries. As practitioners noted, crucial steps to promoting digital inclusion are:

  • Lead with an equity framework: Practitioners were emphatic that decisions on funding allocations for federal dollars should ensure that equity is a prominent guidepost.
  • Community-driven messaging facility: This means deploying “digital navigators” to help people negotiate the ins and outs of acquiring and using digital tools. These navigators should come from the communities they serve.
  • Locate and centralize digital resources: Having a trusted and accessible place in the community can invite people to explore benefits such as the ACP and also serve as a “one-stop” location to find support (eg, discount offers, digital skills training, and tech support).
  • Engage and fund organizations doing the work: Even if the digital divide is a new policy issue for some local policymakers, business leaders, and local philanthropists, well-developed programs to address it have evolved in many communities. These groups should have a prominent seat at the table in devising policy solutions in a new environment of abundant funding.

Accompanying these opportunities are two potential pitfalls:

  • Equating solving the digital divide with investing in new networks: Practitioners said that many decision-makers just become conversant about the digital divide see investment in networks as the sole solution. Some people hear “digital divide,” said practitioners, and see investments in fiber networks.
  • Being bulldozed by those new to the issue, but touting solutions: Practitioners were wary of new players, perhaps motivated by the abundance of funding in this area, offering solutions to digital equity. They feared the new players would neglect to build an understanding of the issue and ignore people and organizations within a community that have experience addressing digital equity.

States will soon have funding available from the federal government to help fill network infrastructure gaps and improve digital equity. Funding will include planning for digital equity. An important lesson from the EveryoneOn focus groups is that planning for digital equity starts with listening to the communities that have experienced digital inequity.

Methodological note

A total of 22 individuals participated in the virtual focus groups. Participants joined from Los Angeles, CA, Mount Vernon, AL, Pittsburgh, PA, and San Leandro, CA. Two focus groups were conducted in English and one group was conducted in Spanish. The participants represented the populations disproportionately affected by the digital divide, namely, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American, income insecure (the average household income was less than $ 30,000), women, and those whose primary language is one other than English. For digital inclusion practitioners, ten organizations participated in two focus groups. The organizations included several nonprofits, a library, two city departments, a public housing agency, and a social enterprise with extensive experience fostering digital equity in underserved communities.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl; dr)

ICYMI from Benton

May 17 — ACP: Connecting Low-Income Households to Affordable Internet Services (Advancing Justice)

May 18 — The Tech That Comes Next: How Changemakers, Philanthropists, and Technologists Can Build an Equitable World (Berkman Klein Center)

May 18 — Breakdown of the $ 48B NTIA Broadband NOFO (Fiber Broadband Association)

May 19 — May 2022 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

May 19 — Why the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Matters: A Breakdown and an Update (Michelson 20MM Foundation)

May 20 — Preparing Rural Grant Applications (National Broadband Resource Hub)

May 23 — Broadband Technology Summit (Fierce)

May 23 — The Diamond in the Rough: Chiseling 21st Century Learners in a Broadband-Enhanced World (Software & Information Industry Association)

May 25 — Applying for E-rate is Hard … Could it Get Harder? (SHLB Coalition)

Jun 08 — Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

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