Low-income people may face a “bandwidth tax.” This tax is not necessarily part of the digital divide and is not a reference to the internet at all. Instead, it refers to the phenomenon of not being able to focus on long-term goals because so much cognitive effort is spent simply figuring out how to make ends meet in the short run.
But perhaps internet bandwidth could help mitigate the “bandwidth tax.” Could home broadband access help ease the tax burden by giving low-income people a tool to better manage time and information?
A new survey of recent Comcast Internet Essentials subscribers suggests that it might. In particular, the survey shows that a high-speed internet subscription at home helps low-income people to better manage time and money.
Some background: The Comcast Internet Essentials (IE) program was established in 2011 as a voluntary condition in the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. IE costs $9.95 and today offers 15 Mbps down/2 Mbps upload speeds. To be eligible for IE, a household must have school-age children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, receive HUD housing assistance, or have a low-income veteran (a recent expansion). When heads of households were asked how having IE service affected their communication with school and their kids, said the survey finds that:
- 83% report having IE service has helped them or someone in their household “a lot” (73%) or “somewhat” (10%) in doing school work.
- 81% said this statement describes them “very well” (68%) or “somewhat well” (13%): “The internet helps me be more responsive to things going on in my child’s school”.
- 63% said that they or someone in the household went online for schoolwork in the prior week.
Of course, the internet offers more than just connections to school and resources for school work. For IE households, one-third (34%) said they used the internet to look for or apply for a job in the prior week and 52% say that having IE service has helped at least somewhat in finding a job for them or someone in their household.
Recent IE subscribers also see home internet access as a way to save time, manage their schedules, and save them money. With respect to money and finances:
- 81% of respondents said the internet helps them “a lot” (61%) or “somewhat” (20%) to save money on monthly bills.
- 50% say they would be interested in training on online resources that might help them better manage money and finances.
Majorities of IE subscribers also say that home internet access helps them save time and manage their schedules.
- 84% say this statement describes them “very well” (58%) or “somewhat well” (26%): “The internet helps me save time for day-to-day activities.”
- 77% say the internet helps them “a lot” (53%) or “somewhat” (24%) to manage their schedule to facilitate meeting family needs.
These benefits are especially noticeable for working parents. Nearly half (47%) of the sample consists of people who are working (either full or part-time) and have school age children at home. Focusing on that share of working parents who feel very strongly about these issues, 63% says the internet’s timing-saving capabilities describes how they see the benefits of home broadband “very well”; 54% of all other respondents say this. And 58% of working parents say the internet helps a lot with scheduling, in contrast to 49% of all other respondents. Given the realities of the modern workforce – where some jobs are subject to “on call” scheduling and “gig jobs” whereby people may work independently and intermittently depending on jobs’ demand – these findings are understandable.
Whether the time saving benefits of home broadband access leads to meaningful improvement in people’s lives is an open question – and one we plan to examine in the future. But the findings in this survey show that home broadband access extends beyond helping with school work or communicating with kids’ teachers. People believe it helps them save money and time, as well as manage their schedules. These benefits do not necessarily mean that having broadband at home will improve their life prospects – but they suggest the potential is there.
The findings discussed in this blog post come from a June-July 2018 survey of Comcast Internet Essentials customers. Comcast provided the Technology Policy Institute phone numbers of IE households who had subscribed to the service in the prior three months. The survey, conducted using landline and cell phones by Issues and Answers Network, Inc., yielded 1,275 completed interviews. The margin of error for the survey is plus-or-minus 3 percentage points.