The following position statement was adopted by CTAB at its 3/10/15 meeting.
Position Statement: Low-Income Internet Access
Internet access is critical for anyone to keep up in modern American society. Everything from education, job seeking, banking and most government services are routinely offered online. The lack of an Internet connection puts people at a profound disadvantage.
According to the 2014 Information Technology Access and Adoption in Seattle study, nearly all households surveyed reported that Internet services are very important. However, only about a quarter of the lowest two household income groups (under $30,000) have cable Internet, compared to two-thirds of households who make $100,000 per year or more. There is clearly a digital divide, separated by economics.
Unless easier and more affordable access to the Internet is created for Seattle’s low-income population, it will be increasingly difficult for them to improve their personal and economic situation. Better lives for Seattle’s residents individually will help raise the City’s standing and competitiveness as a whole. It benefits everyone to make Internet access affordable for all residents.
Private Service Provider Plans
In our review of privately subsidized low-income Internet service plans, we found that most plans had complex application processes that make it difficult to participate in the low-income plans.
These low-income plans also fail to provide the bandwidth necessary for their users to be full participants in the digital economy.
Our recommendations are:
- To verify income eligibility, we favor giving low-income applicants the option of providing proof of participation in an existing low-income verification process to reduce the burden and complexity of applying multiple times. Existing income verification options might include Medicaid, DSHS programs, Seattle City Light utility discount programs, or federal income tax forms. This will streamline and shorten the process for both applicants and internet providers. Current plans often rely on reduced lunch programs for students as the sole qualifier, thereby omitting participation by low-income residents without children in public schools. All plans should be inclusive of all low-income people.
- Allow low-income residents to participate, even if they are an existing customer. Most current programs today are only valid for a new customer. Allow participation of low-income residents whose past accounts ended in arrears, provided the customers satisfy their previous debt obligations.
- Allow low-income residents to subscribe to a month-to-month option, rather than a long-term contract.
- Current plans often list an application contact that ends in a voicemail recording, which are often not responded to. Provide a dependable single point of contact to support applicants in the signup process and/or partner with a qualified local organization to provide the support. For example, ISPs should ensure that the application and instructions are available in multiple languages and in accessible in formats for those with low vision.
- Publish and share subscription statistics showing broadband adoption for low-income residents.
- Provide data speeds equivalent to modern day standards:
- For wireline connections (e.g., cable, DSL, fiber), we recommend low-income plans in Seattle offer bandwidths that match, at a minimum, the current definition of broadband as defined by the Federal Communications Commission.
- We recommend no data caps or throttling be applied. If caps are applied, they should not be lower than the lowest tier of standard accounts. If data caps or throttling are initiated, customers should receive a data usage warning before overage fees or throttling are applied Service providers should treat all content equally without employing any form of data cap or bandwidth discrimination.
- Connectivity for low-income plans should not discriminate. Acknowledging that cellular devices provide another crucial link to the internet for low-income residents in Seattle, we recommend that cellular connections be treated the same as wireline connections with regards to ease of application, terms, access, and usefulness of the low-income cellular plans.
There will always be an economic barrier making it difficult for low-income residents to access the Internet if the private sector does not provide reasonable means of low-income Internet access. Public policy needs to be created to ensure that the appropriate pricing and subscription mechanisms are established so that low-income constituents are not denied this critical tool.
Price and ease of access are only two factors to consider in closing the digital divide. Further investment is needed in initiatives like the City of Seattle’s Community Technology program to provide the education and outreach necessary to connect those without access. Providers should be encouraged to provide or fund community education sessions at local neighborhood and community centers and Seattle Public Libraries.
We believe that as a City, we can do better to improve Internet access for all. Meeting the minimum bar is not good enough. Policymakers and service providers are all responsible for doing our part to close the digital divide.
Citizens’ Technology and Telecommunications Advisory Board