US Broadband Infrastructure: The Adoption Gap

By Heather Sabel, Samuel Kornstein

While COVID-19 has accelerated the need for robust home broadband, Pew Research recently found that 34% of lower-income home broadband users have had trouble paying for their service amid the pandemic[i]. The pandemic only increased the pre-existing difficulty of affording broadband for many families.

We recently published a report in collaboration with ACA Connects that assessed the extent to which the Digital Divide is driven by the lack of adoption of home broadband, in addition to the gaps in broadband infrastructure availability.

About 10% of US households don’t have broadband service available

According to the data published by the FCC in June 2020 – the latest publicly available release – there are 3.8M households in the US (3%) that still do not have access to baseline level broadband of at least 25/3 Mbps, the FCC’s current broadband standard.

In addition to the households known to the FCC to be unserved, there’s a known limitation in FCC reporting methodology that results in some households being classified as ‘served’ when they don’t have this baseline service available. Studies suggest this there may be as many as 8.2M of these households, for a total of 12M unserved households across the US (~10%).

The adoption gap is a larger barrier to closing the digital divide than the availability gap

While much of the public discussion has centered on the availability problem, there’s an additional barrier to consider: adoption.

In addition to the 12M households that don’t have access to broadband, there are approximately an additional 30M households that do have access, but still don’t subscribe. One prominent reason that households with access don’t subscribe is related to income – about 36% of households without a fixed broadband connection make below $20K/year.

And this statistic reflects the reality for American families before the pandemic began. Pew Research found that lower income families faced greater financial hardship as a result of COVID-19[ii], which may imply that broadband has become even less affordable for many of these lower-income families.

In order to maximize the number of Americans that can access essential digital resources, policymakers will need to consider the best way to allocate funding to address both the availability and adoption gaps that face American families.<>

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[i] “34% of lower-income home broadband users have had trouble paying for their service amid COVID-19”, Pew Research Center, June 2021.

[ii] “Economic Fallout From COVID-19 Continues To Hit Lower-Income Americans the Hardest”, Pew Research Center, September 2020