Will the Government's New Broadband Subsidies Close the Digital Divide for Older Americans?
Who'll get the discounts aimed at making the internet more affordable and accessible
Only 58% of Americans age 65 or older have broadband internet access at home, which means 22 million people that age lack it, according to the nonprofit Older Adult Technology Services (OATS). This became especially problematic during the pandemic, when so many people needed to get on the internet for telehealth appointments and to book a COVID-19 vaccination appointment.
One reason many older Americans don't have broadband: affordability. But now, the U.S. government is about to step up to try addressing this problem.
"Online access is a lifeblood for families right now."
The New Emergency Broadband Benefit Program
On May 12, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will launch the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which will have internet service providers give low-income Americans who qualify up to $50 off per month for broadband service, plus a one-time $100 discount for a new computer or tablet.
The $3.2 billion in subsidies are part of the economic stimulus law Congress passed in December 2020 and signed by President Donald Trump.
"Online access is a lifeblood for families right now," said the provision's co-sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) at the time. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel recently said that as a result of the program, "we will have a new way for disconnected Americans to access the internet to carry out their day-to-day life."
Eligible households will be able to apply for the broadband discounts in one of two ways: They can enroll directly with their internet service provider. Or they can fill out an application at the federal website, Getemergencybroadband.org.
Who Will Qualify for the Broadband Subsidies
Among households who will qualify are: people who lost jobs and have seen their income substantially reduced since Feb. 29, 2020 (maximum income: $99,000 for singles; $198,000 for joint filers); those on Medicaid or with ones with incomes equal to 135% or less of the federal poverty guidelines, which is about $23,500 for two-person households in most states.
So far, AT&T Verizon and Comcast have said they'll be providing the broadband subsidies to some new and existing customers.
Comcast already offers an Internet Essential program, with low-income households paying $10 a month for broadband service. The National Council on Aging has a benefits checkup tool that can point users to utility providers with discounts based on their ZIP code.
Advocates for older adults say the government's new broadband subsidies are a good step towards closing the digital divide — but that much more will need to be done to get them on the internet.
One problem is that the subsidy money could run out within a year, at which point broadband pricing could go right back up, says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, an advocacy group for expanding broadband access.
Big Issues: Internet Skills and Security Concerns
But a bigger issue, Siefer says, is that many older Americans lack basic internet skills and that some have security concerns keeping them offline altogether.
"Digital literacy is a really huge issue," Siefer says.
Vivian Nava-Schellinger, director of national and community partnerships and network activation at the National Council on Aging, says: "It's not just about giving seniors broadband access. It's also about giving them the information they need to engage safely online."
Still, about 96% of people between 50 and 64 report use the internet today, up from 77% a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center. And among those over 65, internet usage has grown from 46% to 75% over that period.
The pandemic has also encouraged many Americans over 50 to upgrade the technology they use to get online. A recent AARP survey found that people 50+ spent an average of $1,144 on tech in 2020, nearly triple the $394 they spent in 2019.
"The need for [older] people to get the COVID vaccine and to use telehealth to connect to their doctors made them more aware of the benefits of the internet," says Carol McDonough, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "What we need now is to bring in the laggards, and they're going to need some handholding."
Where Older Adults Can Get Internet Training
Broadband newcomers looking for help learning how to use the internet safely can often find it through libraries and senior centers.
"We're seeing more and more community-based organizations creating training programs, not just for older adults, but for their caregivers, as well," says Nava-Schellinger.
Some federal lawmakers are pushing for additional money to be allocated to expanding online access.
Some financial services companies have stepped up with training courses, too. For instance, Capital One partners with senior centers to train older adults in online banking. The workshops, dubbed "Ready, Set, Bank," include lessons on how to recognize phishing attacks and other scams.
Verizon is partnering with the National 4-H Council to teach digital skills in rural communities.
Given the expected rapid depletion of the new broadband subsidies, some federal lawmakers are pushing for additional money to be allocated to expanding online access.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have introduced a bill that would order the U.S. government to spend $94 billion expanding broadband infrastructure in underserved communities. "In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America — regardless of their ZIP code," Klobuchar said in a statement.
President Joe Biden has also included $100 billion in spending on broadband access as part of his proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure package. Vice President Kamala Harris has been tapped to spearhead closing the nation's digital divide.