Low income households and similar vulnerable communities have lower rates of adoption of digital services. This is a well known problem.
What is less well understood is the appropriate means to deal with the challenge.
Fifteen years ago, in my opening remarks at The 2008 Canadian Telecom Summit, I said:
there are many households in urban areas that can’t afford to equip their homes with a computer and connectivity. Shouldn’t our connectivity strategy be as concerned about that kind of digital divide? We might find that a direct, needs-based subsidy, costs less and benefits a broader group of Canadians caught on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The digital divide is not just a chasm between rural and urban. At the root is affordability, which is a problem facing lower income urban dwellers as much as rural markets.
I used to think the right solution is for the government to develop a direct subsidy program that would provide targeted groups with lower cost access to technology and services. In the United States, the FCC has US$14.2 billion dollars to transform its Emergency Broadband Benefit Program into its long-term Affordable Connectivity Program. “The benefit provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.”
Unfortunately, the Canadian government likely lacks the competence to effectively (or efficiently) deliver such a program.
That is unfortunate.
Ideally, we would let qualified households choose their own suppliers and make their own choices for communications services and devices in order to receive a direct user subsidy, similar to other targeted government programs. Under such a program, consumers would make their own decisions about which speeds and services meets their needs. Select the products and services you want, negotiate your best deal, and then present your affordability discount certificate to get an additional $X off as a discrete line item on the bill.
I just don’t see this government doing such a thing. As such, it will be interesting to watch the outcome of the CRTC’s hearing currently underway as part part of its review of telecommunications in the Far North.
Fortunately, for the overwhelming majority of Canadians, we have seen communications services providers develop and fund their own programs, such as Rogers Connected for Success and TELUS Internet for Good. The government’s role has been limited to helping the service providers by identifying qualifying households.
Since these programs were launched 10 years ago, there have been a number of enhancements and a lot of lessons have emerged.
Unfortunately, we have learned that it isn’t enough to offer low-priced computers and $10 per month broadband. Indeed, as Georgetown University economist Scott Wallsten writes [pdf, 1.8MB], the FCC conducted studies associated with its Broadband Lifeline service testing “consumer responses to a range of issues, including preferences for speed, the effects of different levels and types of discounts” Surprisingly, the FCC found “only about ten percent of the expected number of households signed up, even with the price of one plan set at $1.99 per month.” The research also found a significant avoidance of 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.”
There is still much work to be done. Fifteen years after my opening address at The 2008 Canadian Telecom Summit, there are still too many vulnerable members of society who have not been able to benefit from a digital world. Many are concerned about the risks of being a novice user. Many distrust government and the potential risks of always being online.
More recently, I wrote, “just as we might work with professional associations to reach out to doctors and pharmacists, can we look to associations, community centres, and agencies to help proselytize, winning over those who have not yet been convinced of the benefits of digital connectivity?”
We need to try new means of community outreach to get vulnerable communities online.