Using evidence to solve the digital divide

An article in The Hill caught my eye this past weekend. In “No more gut-based strategies: Using evidence to solve the digital divide”, Gregory Rosston and Scott Wallsten write:

COVID-19 has, among other things, brought home the costs of the digital divide. Numerous op-eds have offered solutions, including increasing subsidies to schools, providing eligible low-income people with a $50 per month broadband credit, funding more digital literacy classes and putting WiFi on school buses. A House bill would allocate $80 billion to ideas meant to close the digital divide.

The key missing component of nearly every proposal to solve the connectivity problem is evidence — evidence suggesting the ideas are likely to work and ways to use evidence in the future to evaluate whether they did work. Otherwise, we are likely throwing money away. Understanding what works and what doesn’t requires data collection and research now and in the future.

Gregory Rosston is Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and Director of the Public Policy program at Stanford University. He previously served as Deputy Chief Economist at the Federal Communications Commission. Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow of the Technology Policy Institute and was the economics director for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.

Many people mistakenly think the connectivity problem is simple to solve. All we need to do is lower the price and we’ll magically attain universal broadband adoption.

If it was only that easy.

In reality, we have gained some experience, learning from programs like Connecting Families, Internet for Good, and Connected for Success that other factors are in play. South of the border, “Learning from the FCC’s Lifeline Broadband Pilot Projects” [pdf, 1.8MB] looked at the outcomes of 14 experimental wireline and wireless broadband Lifeline projects facilitated by the FCC around the United States.

There were some very important observations made from those US trials.

  • The most consistent result was unexpected: an extremely low participation rate. Wireline providers and mobile providers (except those in Puerto Rico) managed to sign up less than 10 percent of the number of participants they had expected despite extensive outreach efforts. Puerto Rico mobile providers met their participation goals probably because of mass-market television advertising. These results demonstrate the difficulty of encouraging low-income people without connections to sign up even with large discounts, suggesting that subsidies are likely to go to people who already subscribe rather than working to close the digital divide.
  • The trials also revealed subscribers’ willingness to trade off speed for lower prices, with subscribers regularly choosing plans that offered less than 10 Mbps, which is the FCC’s current required minimum for rural broadband subsidies. Because faster broadband typically costs more, higher minimum speeds are likely to blunt the (already likely low) beneficial effects of subsidies by increasing the price of eligible plans.
  • Finally, subscribers generally expressed a preference to avoid digital literacy training classes. In one project, many participants were willing to forego an additional $10 per month savings or a free computer in order to avoid taking those classes.

As Wallsten and Rosston write, “The change in adoption we should expect at different price levels is just one of many questions that need to be answered to effectively address the digital divide.”

As we saw in the Cabinet pronouncement this past weekend, as far as the Canadian government is concerned, Canada’s future depends on connectivity.

The former economists from the FCC advise “The first step toward making real progress is recognizing what we don’t know and doing something to fill that gap in our knowledge.”

Solving the digital divide will need more than just building the infrastructure. Broadband availability is necessary, but insufficient to achieve universal digital adoption.

We need to ensure that we are gathering more evidence, and learning from the data. Using evidence to solve the digital divide,

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