Federal Communications Commission

Two Studies That Deepen Our Understanding of Barriers to Broadband Adoption

March 4th, 2010 by John Horrigan - Consumer Research Director, Ombnibus Broadband Initiative.

Increasing the current levels of broadband adoption in the U.S. from the current level of 65% will not happen automatically. Last week’s release of the FCC’s “Broadband Adoption and Use in America” helped frame the challenges that current non-adopters face. The survey found that, when pinned down on the most important reasons for non-adopting, cost led the way (36%), followed by digital literacy (22%), and lack of relevance (19%).

Yet the survey sought to explore whether barriers to access had more than one dimension. Common sense tells us that barriers to use of any product can have more than one component. 

And so it is for broadband. The survey was structured in such a way so that people were asked about multiple barriers to adoption before the survey asked them to identify the most important reason. This lets us look at a single barrier – such as cost – in several ways. Some 66% of non-adopters identified at least one of four cost-related factors as barriers to adoption. Those factors were: level of monthly fee, affordability of a computer, installation fee, or reluctance to enter into a long-term service contract. Half specifically pointed to the level of the monthly fee as a problem. Notably, however, 85% of those who cited monthly fee as a barrier also cited at least one of the other three cost-related reasons. 

A new study by the Social Science Research Council entitled “Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities,” released on March 2 had similar findings. The SSRC research is based on structured conversations with more than 150 non-adopters. The SSRC sample is not nationally representative, but its qualitative research approach has the significant advantage of eliciting stories about the context of non-adoption. The FCC commissioned this research to deepen our understanding of barriers to adoption.

Like the FCC study, SSRC’s research underscored the importance of cost. Essentially all non-adopters the SSRC team interviewed mentioned cost as a barrier to adoption. SSRC also found that cost has multiple dimensions. Low-income people without broadband said that cost to them means not only monthly fee, but also hardware and software costs (including virus protection), installation costs, equipment maintenance fees, and transaction costs for disconnecting. The SSRC research also found that many non-adopters lack the skills to carry out online tasks such as applying for a job – which places great strain on public libraries whose staff often serve as the de facto help desk.

The SSRC study had two additional findings that resonate with the FCC survey.

  1. Un-adoption: SSRC’s sample of non-adopters included 22% who had broadband once, but “un-adopted,” that is, they had to disconnect service. Reasons given for this included loss of a job, technical problems (e.g., the computer broke or was rendered useless by viruses), billing issues such as unexpected hidden fees, or bundling problems (if, over time, one part of the bundle proved difficult to sustain). In the FCC survey, 8% of non-adopters had “un-adopted.”
  2. The need to have service: SSRC found that all the people with whom they spoke understood the need to have broadband access – and these people said the drivers for use for them were education, access to jobs, and access to government services. None of the people in SSRC’s sample had broadband at home, but all were willing to go to great effort to use it at libraries or community centers. Indeed, the SSRC report conveys an anxiety about broadband among the non-adopters interviewed; they know its importance yet face hurdles to getting it at home.

It is worth noting that the FCC survey did find that some non-adopters – mostly older ones – say they do not have a compelling need for service.  The group of non-adopters who say lack of relevance is their main adoption barrier breaks down as follows: 5% say they do not see the need for more speed, 5% say they believe the internet is a waste of time, 4% say there is nothing they want to see online, and 4% do not use the internet very much.

The FCC and SSRC research tell us something important in thinking of cost as a policy lever to address non-adoption. Lowering the monthly cost of access would unquestionably help many adopters get online with broadband at home. But cost has a broader context than just the monthly bill. Cost of ownership (e.g., maintenance, necessary software) and nature of service plan (e.g., length of contractual commitment or, as SSRC finds, bundling) matter too. Moreover, many non-adopters need the basic skills on how negotiate online sessions to carry out tasks that increasingly require broadband access.

These findings point to an implication of the research that has explored reasons for non-adoption: addressing non-adopters’ barriers will require comprehensive solutions to address the multiple cost and skills hurdles people without broadband face.

One Response to “Two Studies That Deepen Our Understanding of Barriers to Broadband Adoption”

  1. Deproduction says:

    I was blown away to see that Pew reported that over 50% of non-adopters list Relevance, in some form, as their primary deterrent, and SSRC reported 0%. Its worth noting that The SSRC's report was based on only 171 subjects, while PEW and the FCC reports involved thousands.

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