What’s the Point of Internet Access, Anyway?

Originally published at Huffington Post

Many Americans settling into a friend’s home or local business for the first time ask the same question: “What’s the WiFi code?” As high-speed internet access becomes increasingly entwined with our personal and professional lives, more people feel the need to be constantly connected. Indeed, one of America’s great challenges is to ensure every citizen has access to the internet’s benefits. Yet researchers are revealing new obstacles to reaching that goal: many people don’t see the point.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that our nation’s widespread internet use has spurred profound and widely unprecedented economic growth and broadband internet access and digital competencies will be central to America’s’ success in the future. In a June report, Secretary Penny Pritzker stated that the “Department of Commerce has made digital economy policy a top priority, working to empower U.S. businesses and the American people with the tools, education, and resources necessary to reap the countless benefits of digital technologies and services.”

Similarly, the White House has noted the many benefits that come from using broadband internet, including more access to resources for healthcare, education and business. However, while a great deal of progress has been made towards connecting all Americans to broadband internet, a substantial digital divide remains.

Access to the internet anywhere, at any time, feels critical to many Americans, but many others don’t see the point of having it at home.

Data from the NTIA’s 2015 survey on computer and internet usage revealed that the major cause for this digital divide is a perceived lack of relevance. Broadband internet may be too expensive for some, but there are many who choose to remain offline regardless of cost. While 24% of the 33 million households that were recorded as not using the internet at home cited cost as the primary factor in remaining disconnected, more than twice as many (55%) stated they either had no need for it or no interest in going online.

As it has been in the past, non-Asian minorities and people with disabilities remain the most likely groups to not use the internet at home, along with people in lower income brackets and people with lower levels of educational attainment. Whether by circumstance or by choice, these individuals are not online and, therefore, unable to meaningfully participate in the digital economy.

This lack of participation presents a number of serious disadvantages for offline individuals and households. A recent report from the Internet Innovation Alliance on The Top 10 Ways Being Online Saves You Money shows that the average American household can save more than $11,000 annually on essentials like housing, apparel, food and gasoline by utilizing the internet for online-only discounts, deeper access to inventory and comparison shopping. For instance, in 2015, the average household was able to save around $500 on food and nearly $450 on health insurance using online resources. As detailed in the report, broadband, both fixed and mobile, has substantially changed the way people shop, consume news, and pay bills, saving their dollars and time.

For families, broadband also facilitates connections that maintain bonds when people are separated by great distances. FaceTime and Skype help far away relatives see each other in real time. Children know an uncle’s or grandmother’s face, even when they live across the state, country or world. Robust virtual and augmented reality networks will make those connections even stronger as projected 3-D avatars and virtual conversations become more commonplace.

In addition to being a money-stretcher and a family-connector, broadband offers users access to a seemingly limitless trove of information, opportunities and resources that prove invaluable. As our nation continues to push the limits of innovation and efficiency in the 21st century, broadband has become an absolute necessity for accessing education and employment opportunities, civic engagement and communication, playing a huge role in breaking the cycle of poverty and allowing Americans to pursue their dreams. The internet is one of the greatest equalizers of our time.

While some feel that they have no need for the internet in their daily lives, the advantages are undeniable. Broadband is a critical part of participating in America’s ever-evolving economy. It is crucial no American gets left behind.

Op-eds