Why we need to get low-income households online

In the US, about 15% of Americans don’t use the internet. The Washington Post had an article last week by Brian Fung entitled “37 million Americans don’t use the Web. Here’s why you should care.

As Fung describes, that 15% slice of the population are mostly “poorer, older and undereducated”.

A fifth of black Americans are disconnected. Same goes for the 25 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year and a quarter of all adults who live in rural areas. And among those who’ve never finished high school, a third never use the Web.

In Canada, more than 15% of households still lack an internet connection according to Statistics Canada. At 85%, households in metropolitan areas had better adoption rates than the 75% adoption rate among those outside census metropolitan areas or census agglomerations. The most marked differences in adoption is based on income:

Almost all households in the top income quartile (98%), or those with household incomes of $94,000 or more, had home Internet access, compared with 58% of households in the lowest income quartile, or those with household incomes of $30,000 or less.

According to Statistics Canada, “Of those households that did not have home Internet access in 2012, 61% reported they had no need for or interest in it. About 20% of households reported having no access because of the cost of the service or equipment.”

In my view, if you are having trouble making ends meet, it is likely that concerns about putting food on the table would lead you to say that you have “no need for or interest in it.” Both responses indicate an affordability issue.

As the Washington Post article says, “As the rest of us use the Internet to do homework, find jobs, make friends, get the news, earn a living, learn new skills, buy groceries, organize politically and do a seemingly endless range of other activities, encouraging the disconnected to hop online has become a national priority.”

… for these folks, simply building out the Internet isn’t enough; convincing them that the Web could help them grow is crucial to getting them online.

In Canada, our sole national focus has been on massive subsidies based on geography, not based on income. Government programs have targeted rural and remote regions without concern for a million low income households in urban centres. As I have written before, the CRTC’s “Review of basic telecommunications services” addresses the question of broadband affordability based on geography. As I wrote in May, “The CRTC is starting with an examination of what areas might be underserved when it might be more useful to start by trying to understand ‘who in Canada is underserved or unserved’?”

As the Washington Post article concludes: “there are real structural challenges (poverty and inequality) that are keeping younger, less socially mobile populations from becoming America’s next great inventors or scientists or civil servants. And those people matter, too.”

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