Broadband Access as an Asset Building Tool

Blog Post
Sept. 19, 2013

In a newly released video co-produced by New America’s Education Policy Program, Open Technology Institute, and Asset Building Program, my colleagues and I argue that affordable and universal broadband access is an important tool for promoting equal access to economic, educational and occupational opportunities for all. Learn more about this body of work here.

When accompanied by appropriate digital inclusion policies and adequate consumer protections, broadband access can serve as a tool to help families and individuals build their wealth, access savings opportunities, and improve their economic prospects.

Access to the internet gives individuals, families, and communities a vehicle with which to engage an array of resources and services: the full spectrum of the education system, the job market and a wide variety of workplaces, financial service providers, and a range of other governmental and non-governmental services and structures that improve daily life. In this way, the internet can function as a tool to promote upward social and economic mobility. In the asset building context, an affordable high-speed home broadband connection can lay the foundation for successful engagement with safe and affordable financial products outside of a bank. Internet access (and competency with internet-based tools) is a de facto prerequisite for un- or underemployed adults to seek out and apply for living wage job opportunities. Children and youth can use the internet to build foundational skills that lead to better educational outcomes in the short and long-term.  

However, we have a long way to go to reach this vision for universal connectivity – and a number of caveats to address along the way.

Current Levels of Broadband Access   

According to a recently released Pew report, three out of every ten American adults do not have a high-speed broadband connection at home. Disparities in home broadband access closely follow patterns of race and socioeconomic status. For example, while 74 percent of white Americans have broadband access at home, only 64 percent of black Americans and 53 percent of Hispanic Americans do so. And while 88 percent of Americans with household incomes above $75,000 have home broadband access, just 54 percent of those earning less than $30,000 do too.

This means that millions of Americans are reliant on community-based sources of internet access – they get online at school, perhaps in the workplace, or they head to the local public library. The Universal Service Fund, run by the Federal Communications Commission, subsidizes broadband and telephone access for many individuals and community institutions, but needs significant improvements to meet the growing demands of a 21st century society. Many Americans remain off-line entirely, often due to concerns about affordability, data security and privacy, or a lack of interest or knowledge about what options exist.  

“What about Smartphones?”

“What about smartphones?” some have wondered. Can’t smartphones address race- and income-based disparities in access to the internet? The growing market presence and increasing affordability of smartphones has indeed been identified as a strategy to bridge the so-called “digital divide.” As Pew points out, high rates of smartphone adoption among black and Latino Americans does nearly close the “broadband gap” – but only if you count smartphone ownership as equivalent to a broadband connection.

While smartphones certainly have some capacity to make the online world more accessible, broadband connectivity and smartphone ownership are complementary, but not interchangeable, services. As a high school teacher in Newark, New Jersey recently explained: “A lot of my students have smartphones [but] that doesn’t mean they can type or submit assignments.” For a hands-on illustration, take out a smartphone, if you own one, and imagine the steps you’d take to apply to a job using only that device. Along these lines, a recent OTI publication explored the various limitations inherent in relying on mobile technology to bridge the digital divide.

As Hibah Hussain of OTI noted to me, the reduced functionality of smartphones, coupled with caps on data usage, represents a significant downside to relying on smartphones alone for internet access. According to Danielle Kehl and Benjamin Lennett, also of OTI, “data caps—monthly limits that force Internet users to pay for a specific amount of data and bill them even more if they exceed the limit—are proliferating” and threatening the likelihood that smartphone access will translate into increased educational opportunity.

Furthermore, even setting aside the costs and limitations of smartphone technology, we still bump up against an access gap: a full fifth of Americans have neither a home broadband connection nor a smartphone. This is a problem because unequal access to the internet can create, cement, or exacerbate other forms of inequality.

Consumer Protections and Equitable Digital Inclusion  

As researchers from OTI have noted previously, access to the internet simply for access’ sake is not an adequate or desirable framework with which to approach this issue. As Seeta Gangadharan has written extensively, digital inclusion policies and programs must go beyond just providing connectivity – they must be informed by a comprehensive understanding of how historically underserved communities have interacted with, been affected by, or encountered exploitation by technology and internet-based companies and providers. As I’ve discussed previously with Hibah Hussain, mobile phones are particularly precarious from a data security perspective and are therefore not without consumer risks. Broadband access and smartphone technology can function as effective, complementary tools that promote economic opportunity, while still potentially exposing consumers to data security risks, predatory products, or surveillance by a governmental or third-party actor. Informed policy design can mitigate this risk.

In a world increasingly dominated by online data and interactions, policymakers must consistently make the case for consumer protections that ensure privacy and safety for all online. Broadband access is important for facilitating a range of positive social and economic outcomes, but must be accompanied by full disclosure of any risks to privacy and data security for users.      

There are myriad ways that broadband access can support a family on a sustainable path out of poverty, but the technology alone is not a substitute for inclusive economic and social policies. That said, with adequate consumer protections and an explicit focus on improving access and meaningful usability for currently underserved communities, universal access to affordable broadband can help lay the groundwork for a more equitable and better connected society.

Watch the video and let us know what you think by leaving a comment below or tweeting at @AssetsNAF.