Evaluation critically needed for closing IT gaps in tribal communities and public housing

President Obama has called broadband Internet a necessity rather than a luxury, and the Council of Economic Advisors has compared it to basic needs like water and electricity. One in four American households lack this necessity, however, and research shows that cost is a major barrier for low-income households.  But, there are opportunities to learn more about how to address this hurdle from a new federal initiative, ConnectHome.  The White House has said that this program presents a chance to learn about best practices, and to replicate them elsewhere.  To do this, it is essential to build in program evaluation from the start. 

On a recent visit to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, President Obama announced that ConnectHome will provide free or discounted broadband service to public housing residents in 27 cities and the Choctaw Nation.  The program will be administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 28 designated Promise Zone communities, or areas where the Federal Government is partnering with local governments to expand economic development, job creation, affordable housing, and other growth.  Through the ConnectHome Program, the administration expects to provide broadband at home for 425 tribal residents and nearly 200,000 low-income children and family members. The program will be implemented through local partnerships that include private and nonprofit organizations such as Cox, Google Fiber, EveryoneOn, Best Buy, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the American Library Association. 

Barriers to Internet access

The ConnectHome program is aimed at some of the most digitally disadvantaged populations in the U.S.  The national data indicate that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities access broadband Internet less than Non-Hispanic White households. At only 56 percent, they are the least likely racial or ethnic group to have home broadband access. AI/AN households are also most likely to have “mobile-only” Internet users who use smartphones to access the Internet, but lack home broadband connections. This represents 14 percent of AI/AN households.  The rate of broadband adoption at home is lower still for rural Native populations, including those who live on tribal lands or on former tribal lands, such as the Choctaw Nation.  Only 30 percent of nonmetropolitan AI/AN households with incomes below $25,000 reported using the Internet in 2012. In the Oklahoma Promise Zone Region, the identified census tracts experience poverty rates between 30 and 52.8 percent.

Whether measured at the community level or the individual level, income matters for broadband adoption, and this is true when we control for other factors such as race, ethnicity, education, and age.  A lack of affordability has been the predominant reason for not having broadband at home in previous national surveys, if responses citing the cost of broadband are combined with computer costs.  American Indians and Alaska Natives are least likely to say that they are not interested in broadband, and along with Latinos and African-Americans, at least half give cost or lack of an adequate computer as the reason for not having home access. 

Concentrated poverty matters, too.  Living in a poor community exercises an independent effect over and above poverty at the individual level on the likelihood of having Internet access at home, and it magnifies barriers such as cost.  There may be many reasons for why place is significant – the lack of information in low-income communities or higher costs and poorer connectivity among them. 

Overcoming barriers

The ConnectHome program, embedded within public housing sites and tribal areas, opens the possibility of positively influencing communities as well, providing support and sustainable adoption and use. This initiative also offers exciting opportunities for comparative evaluation.  The details of the programs, including prices, vary across cities depending upon local partnerships, but all will have a training component and some will also include free or low-cost tablets or computers. We can learn much about how low the cost needs to be, what kinds of training and support work best, and how this likely differs across populations and by age, race, and ethnicity.  Are there different partnership arrangements that are more effective or more sustainable than others?  There is a dearth of research on Native technology programs in particular.   

ConnectHome offers the chance to better understand how to craft effective programs on a broader scale.  Along with the Lifeline reforms announced by the Federal Communications Commission, there is greater policy attention paid to making the Internet affordable for all.  It is important to take advantage of the moment by ensuring, through rigorous evaluation, that resources are invested wisely and generate important benefits for participating individuals and society.