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The essential internet: digital inclusion insights from low-income American communities

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As the Internet, and broadband in particular, becomes a platform for social and political engagement, researchers investigate more carefully both the factors that drive broadband adoption and the barriers that constrain it. This paper reports on one of the only large-scale qualitative studies of the barriers to broadband adoption in the United States, where 30% of the population lack broadband access. The primary research question asks: how can we qualitatively understand barriers to broadband adoption among low-income communities? The study’s community-based approach, undertaken in four regions of the country, reveals the complex equilibrium of broadband adoption. Drawing from 170 interviews with broadband non-adopters as well as community access providers and other intermediaries, this study finds that price is only one factor shaping home broadband adoption, and that libraries and other community organizations fill the gap between low home adoption and high demand for broadband. These intermediaries compensate for shortages in digital skills that also constitute barriers to adoption in a context where broadband is essential for gaining access to jobs, education, and e-government. These three main findings suggest that low-income people like our research participants are playing roles as actors in an ecology of broadband access games (Dutton et al. 2004). In particular, they are overcoming barriers to being online in order to participate in accessing services and gaining education. This is part of the process of defining broadband as an infrastructure for e-democracy. The paper recommends a renewed focus on factors that sustain home access rather than drive demand, as well as support for community intermediaries in provisioning public broadband access within a context of skill shortages. It recommends further qualitative research to better understand the role of diverse populations in framing the value of broadband access.

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