Digital Access Survey Focuses on Affordable Housing

Shedding light on the haves and have nots of the digital world, including life without Internet access

The coronavirus pandemic has placed the digital divide — and its consequences — into clear view. With Internet access, those sheltering in place had a series of meaningful advantages. They were able to work at home, participate in distance/online learning, order groceries for delivery, among other important activities. Certainly, life with fast, reliable home Internet access was hectic and claustrophobic, but it was substantially less isolating than with no or limited access. At a time when making physical connections was discouraged, Internet users had a virtual lifeline. 

Capital One commissioned its Digital Access Survey before the coronavirus outbreak, but its findings shed light on the difficulties encountered without Internet access, both during the crisis and in more normal times. It also revealed that small screens and a lack of digital skills as much as poor infrastructure perpetuates the gap between the haves and have nots of the digital world. 

A Multidimensional Divide

The Capital One Digital Access Survey focused on low-income residents in urban areas whose household incomes make them eligible for subsidized housing. Qualifying for this type of housing (most commonly funded by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit) requires that a household’s annual income is below a certain threshold, which varies by region. 

The bank surveyed 1,050 of these residents in twenty-one cities around the United States who lived in buildings with more than 10 units. 

Of the respondents, thirty-eight percent lacked broadband. However, cost, not infrastructure, was the obstacle to adoption. Only 7 percent of respondents said that broadband was not available in their area, but 37 percent stated that they were unable or not willing to pay the going rate for broadband in their area. A third of residents with online access reported it cost more than $50 a month, an expense that may be a lower priority when prioritizing household needs. Tight budgets also explain the second-ranked reason for going without home Internet. Thirty-five percent chose to forego fixed Internet service because they could rely on their smartphones, which could become costly, depending upon wireless packages and data rates.

“These survey findings reinforce what we’ve believed for a long time — millions in our communities are being left behind when it comes to digital access and education,” said Desiree Francis, Head of Capital One’s Community Finance team. “When looking at our affordable housing investments in the context of our overall commitment to our communities, we realized that we could play an important role to bridge the divide.”

That role centers around a unique pilot program, Capital One Digital Access, that the Bank is launching in the Bronx and hopes to expand to other cities. Capital One is providing high speed Internet access and free Google Chromebooks to residents of three affordable developments that Francis and her team invested in. This will happen in close partnership with the nonprofit developers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Digital education training will be provided by EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that works to create social and economic opportunity by connecting low-income families to digital training, access, and devices. Given the coronavirus pandemic, these training sessions will be virtual to start.

Wireless Is Not a Substitute for Fixed Access

The FCC has noted that smartphones, while providing Internet access, are not equivalent to in-home broadband and the responses to the Capital One Digital Access Survey fully support this contention. 

The disparity was highlighted by the methods that children in households without broadband use to access the Internet for homework. While 62 percent use their own or their parents’ smartphone to complete their assignments — their only option while at home — 48 percent reported using computers at a public library and another 48 percent said they used computers at school. Clearly, such considerations as larger screens and ease of typing enter into these decisions. In addition, smartphone plans are often subject to data caps, making them a poor choice for educational purposes. 

The advantages of larger devices is reinforced by a series of other findings from the Capital One study. When households have at-home Internet access, they are more likely to have invested in a desktop or laptop computer. In other words, the large screen advantage is not just theoretical, but practical. Furthermore, these broadband users are significantly more comfortable using the Internet than those who rely on smartphones alone. They are more likely to go online to consult information on financial education and budgeting, to identify resources for adult and childhood education, to use employment-related tools, and to research community services.

Toward a Comprehensive Solution

There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from the Capital One Digital Access Survey about assisting low-income residents in taking full-advantage of the Internet. The first is that simply overcoming cost barriers, while essential, is a just a first step. The second is that access to computers and tablets is essential, both for fully using the Internet and for promoting digital education. Third, there is a need for training to help residents gain technical skills and to provide authoritative guidance on safe, productive Internet use.

“The Capital One Digital Access program won’t bring a universal solution to this problem, but we think that given its complexity, as evidenced by our study and many others, that this is a great start,” added Francis. 

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