Today, high-speed internet access, commonly referred to as broadband, is essential. It enables older adults to benefit fully from technologies that improve their quality of life and allow them to age in place. For example, online applications enable people to receive telehealth services (see also Telehealth policy). The technology also permits them to connect with friends and family, shop for groceries and other items, work from home, stream entertainment options, engage in lifelong learning activities, and more.
In 2010, federal regulators set a goal of making affordable high-speed internet access available to 90 percent of U.S. households. However, we are far from achieving that goal. Nationally, approximately two-thirds of U.S. households subscribe to high-speed internet access at the minimum broadband speed. Only about half of U.S. households subscribe at the fastest broadband speeds.
Three issues must be addressed to ensure that everyone is able to take advantage of the many applications and services that high-speed internet facilitates.
- Availability: Communities need high-speed internet access infrastructure. Yet this availability is lacking in many parts of the country, particularly in many lower-income and rural areas. Further, the service must have the capacity to support current and future needs.
- Affordability: Availability is insufficient if the service and appropriate equipment are not affordable for all people. Even when some price competition is present, households with low and moderate incomes often need a subsidy to be able to afford service.
- Digital literacy: People with high-speed internet service in their homes need digital literacy skills to benefit from it. They may benefit from education about the value of connectivity and technology use.
The digital divide is the concept that certain populations do not receive the benefits of high-speed internet service. This may be because it is not available, it is unaffordable, it has not been adopted, or digital literacy skills are lacking. Adoption rates vary significantly based on demographics and geography. Adults age 65 and older lag behind other age groups in broadband adoption, as shown in Table 1. People of color, people with low and moderate incomes, people with disabilities, rural residents, and residents of tribal areas are likewise less likely to have a high-speed internet connection.
High-Speed Internet Adoption by Age
Age 65 and Over
Percent with high-speed internet at home
Percent who use high-speed internet anywhere
Source: Pew Research Center, “Internet/Broadband Factsheet,” available at https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/
Addressing the digital divide requires a commitment to digital equity. Everyone—regardless of factors such as age, race, ethnicity, ability level, and geography—should have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet service. They should also have the digital literacy skills to be able to take advantage of internet-based applications, products, and services.
Accurate high-speed internet availability and adoption data, as well as information about actual speeds and rates, are critical to inform federal and state policymaking. High-speed internet access markets are dynamic: With each passing year, once-current data become outdated. In addition, existing data sources lack accuracy and sufficient granularity. For example, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data overstate deployment. They consider an entire census block served if any households are, or could be, served by high-speed internet access. The FCC, states, and stakeholders are in the process of creating more accurate and granular maps.
Barriers prevent widespread deployment of infrastructure that supports high-speed internet. For example, rural communities can be very expensive to serve and yield low revenues (because there are few customers). They are sparsely populated, so the cost per household served is high. And it often contains challenging terrain, such as rocky land and streams, for laying down wires. Availability challenges extend beyond rural areas. Some neighborhoods with low incomes as well as communities of color are unserved or underserved. Communications companies may not upgrade existing infrastructure to support modern applications and speeds.
Federal and state governments play essential roles in supporting high-speed internet infrastructure deployment in areas where the private sector has not invested or has under-invested. Some federal and state programs exist to serve this purpose. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is awarding states $42.5 billion in grants over five years to support planning, mapping, deployment, equity, and adoption. It also will award $1 billion for “middle mile” infrastructure deployment. In addition, the FCC administers programs that subsidize providers’ high-speed internet access deployment in “unserved” areas (through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund). Other federal agencies also provide grants for certain purposes. Recognizing that federal funding sources are not adequate, many states have sought to add funding. Nevertheless, funding is not enough to meet the need.
Even where high-speed internet infrastructure has been deployed, high prices can serve as barriers to adoption, especially for households with low and moderate incomes. The FCC does not regulate high-speed internet providers’ prices. States have been reluctant to do so in part in anticipation of providers’ likely resistance to such regulation and in part because of the uncertainty regarding federal preemption of states’ oversight. This, combined with a lack of competition, means that high-speed internet prices in the U.S. greatly exceed those in other countries. For some, even if high-speed internet service is available and affordable, slow speeds, data caps, and inferior technology deter adoption. This is particularly true of satellite and wireless services, which offer slower speeds and less reliability. Wired service is faster and more reliable.
Federal, state, and local policymakers are addressing adoption challenges. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) operates the Affordable Connectivity Program that subsidizes high-speed internet access for eligible households. Eligible households earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line or receive certain public benefit programs. As of May 2022, 11,950,783 households participated in the ACP, 1,804,321 of which were age 65 and older. The FCC’s Lifeline program also subsidizes high-speed internet access for some households with low incomes. It offers a discount for households earning no more than 135 percent of the federal poverty line or who receive certain public benefit programs.
A growing number of municipalities and electric cooperatives have launched community broadband networks. In addition, some investor-owned utilities are making their networks available for the provision of broadband. These fiber-to-the-home networks can offer fast, reliable, and affordable high-speed internet service. However, at least 17 states have adopted restrictions that prevent or discourage community broadband, but several of these states are now reconsidering these restrictions.
Digital literacy programs can help older adults and others who need training learn how to use technology and navigate the internet. Such programs help people gain knowledge, skills, and confidence. The federal government does not run digital literacy training programs for older adults. However, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity activities, including digital literacy projects. Older adults are among the populations specifically mentioned in the digital equity language of the act.
Some states and cities have established programs specifically designed to improve digital literacy. Many such programs are located in libraries, senior centers, and affordable housing developments and strengthen local support systems for older adults.
Internet during emergencies
During emergencies, affordable internet service is vital. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts have urged older adults and others to stay home and avoid unnecessary interactions with people outside the home. High-speed internet has helped older adults use online apps to receive telehealth services, shop for groceries and other items, work from home, connect with friends and family, and engage in lifelong learning opportunities. Nine in ten adults reported that their internet service has been important or essential during the pandemic. Policymakers can support increased adoption during other such emergencies.
HIGH-SPEED INTERNET SERVICES: Policy
HIGH-SPEED INTERNET SERVICES: Policy
Universal and affordable high-speed internet
Everyone should have affordable and reliable high-speed internet access in the home, regardless of such factors as geography, race, ethnicity, income, age, and ability level. This includes people living in underserved communities where high-speed internet is not deployed, as well as those who cannot afford service where it is available. Policymakers should consider using grants, loans, tax credits, and other incentives to ensure that as many people as possible receive the benefits of high-speed internet. These policies should incorporate consumer protections and should not shift costs or place an unfair burden on taxpayers or ratepayers.
Policymakers and the private sector should ensure universal deployment of reliable high-speed internet infrastructure. This includes underserved areas, such as rural areas and communities with low incomes. Speeds and data capacity should be sufficient to accommodate everyday applications such as video conferencing, telehealth, and streaming. To the extent feasible, policymakers should prioritize deploying infrastructure that provides the fastest and most reliable service, in particular fiber.
Federal policymakers should implement an aggressive national high-speed internet deployment strategy that includes specific targets in terms of penetration, coverage, and usage. States and localities should pursue a complementary strategy, particularly in areas where national strategies leave gaps. Because the financial means of communities varies significantly, to the extent feasible, priority should be given to those communities with the fewest resources.
Policymakers and the private sector should actively work to narrow the significant gaps in the adoption of high-speed internet. They should address the digital divide among older adults, people of color, people with disabilities, people with low and moderate incomes, and residents of tribal areas.
Policymakers should increase subsidies for households with low and moderate incomes to ensure affordability for all (see also Assistance Programs in this chapter’s policy on Affordability).
Internet providers should be encouraged to provide access to free or discounted devices and internet service for underserved populations, including older adults.
Policymakers should promote increased competition to lower prices and improve quality and reliability. Whenever possible, consumers should have the choice of competing providers, including municipal broadband and electric cooperatives. At a minimum, all consumers should have access to at least one provider.
Consumers should be able to buy stand-alone high-speed internet service at affordable prices.
Consumers should be able to switch internet service providers easily.
All communities should have the right to own, operate, or deploy their own broadband network and services. Existing community broadband networks should be allowed to expand to new areas. Communities lacking affordable high-speed internet access should establish their own community broadband networks.
Federal policymakers should prohibit state laws and regulations that restrict community broadband networks.
State policymakers should support the establishment of community broadband networks in underserved areas. States should refrain from prohibiting municipal broadband deployment. States that have put in place such restrictions should overturn them.
Data collection and reporting
State and federal policymakers should collect and report full and accurate deployment and adoption data. This includes timely, standardized mapping data.
The Federal Communication Commission and state agencies should collect and report pricing information, including monthly fees, connection charges, equipment rental fees, and major contract terms.
Policymakers and the private sector should fully fund robust digital literacy training programs and programs that help underserved populations understand the value of adopting high-speed internet service. These programs should be tailored to meet the unique needs of underserved populations, including older adults.
Policymakers should ensure net neutrality for internet service providers (see also the Net Neutrality section of this chapter).
Consumers should not be charged for equipment that they provide themselves.
Regulation and oversight
Policymakers should engage in robust oversight of high-speed internet to ensure consumer protections, reliability, and accountability. Federal and state regulators should be empowered to conduct regulation and oversight. This includes oversight of rates, terms, and conditions of high-speed internet access.
When making programmatic and funding decisions, policymakers should:
- consider the societal benefits that stem from public investment in high-speed internet;
- prioritize grants and subsidies to providers that offer the best combination of affordable consumer prices, fast speed, resiliency, commitment to digital literacy, and network openness that allows competitors to use the provider’s infrastructure; and
- actively seek meaningful input from community members and stakeholder groups, including those representing older adults and other underserved populations.
When conducting oversight and enforcement, policymakers should:
- ensure accountability, particularly among providers that receive public funding;
- regularly compile, review, and make public consumer complaints about high-speed internet service;
- analyze prices actually charged, as well as actual and advertised speeds, for high-speed internet service in various locations and at different speeds;
- track service-quality metrics; and
- compile and publicly report a full and accurate measure of U.S. high-speed internet deployment and adoption by geography and demographic factors such as age, race, and ethnicity. This measure should be based on accurate, timely, and standardized information.
High-speed internet during emergencies
Policymakers should promote the deployment of robust, reliable high-speed internet networks that function when grid power is not available. Policymakers should set and enforce backup power standards.
During declared states of emergency, policymakers and the private sector should:
- expand access to high-speed internet access, particularly for older adults with low incomes and other underserved populations. This includes providing free or low-cost devices and service and expanding subsidies.
- remove or increase data caps, which limit the overall amount of data a household can use over its internet connection each month.
- prohibit disconnection of high-speed internet for nonpayment for the duration of the emergency.
- ensure that consumers can reasonably repay any unpaid bills for high-speed internet service after the emergency is over. This includes providing funding to assist consumers with low incomes and ensuring access to reasonable repayment plans.