Today, high-speed internet access, commonly referred to as broadband, is essential. It enables older adults to benefit fully from technologies that improve quality of life and allow them to age in place. This includes online applications that enable people to receive telehealthThe use of electronic telecommunications technologies to deliver health care, health information, or health education at a distance. A related term, Telemedicine, generally indicates physician services. services (see also Telehealth), 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 affordable high-speed internet access for 90 percent of U.S. households to facilitate adoption. However, we are well below achieving that goal. The latest data show that nationally, only about two-thirds of U.S. households have high-speed internet service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports state-level adoption rates ranging between 36 and 87 percent.
Three issues must be addressed to ensure that everyone is able to take advantage of the many products and services that high-speed internet facilitates.
- Availability: Communities need the infrastructure to be able to offer high-speed infrastructure. Yet availability is lacking in many parts of the country, particularly 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 applicable equipment are not affordable for all people. Even when price competition is present, households with low and moderate incomes often need a subsidy to be able to afford service.
- Digital literacy: People who have high-speed internet service in their homes need digital literacy skills to be able to benefit from it. Moreover, approximately one-third of those who are offline have incomes above the traditional thresholds for subsidized programs. 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, they have not adopted it, or they do not yet have enough digital literacy to benefit from it. Adoption rates vary significantly based on demographics and geography. Older 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. That is, 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. However, existing data sources lack accuracy and sufficient granularity. For example, 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 trying to create more accurate and granular maps.
Barriers exist to 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 low-income neighborhoods and 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. Federal funding for high-speed internet deployment is provided through various programs. 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. But they are not nearly 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, and states are prohibited from doing so. This, combined with lack of competition, mean 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 have tried to address adoption challenges. For example, the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program now subsidizes high-speed internet access for some low-income households (see also Affordability). But it provides too little assistance, enrolls too few families, and typically offers inferior wireless service
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. At least 22 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 in how to use technology. Such programs help people gain knowledge, skills, and confidence. The federal government does not run digital literacy training programs for older adults. 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. They 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 telehealthThe use of electronic telecommunications technologies to deliver health care, health information, or health education at a distance. A related term, Telemedicine, generally indicates physician services. 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 is important or essential during the pandemic. Moving forward, policymakers can support increased adoption during other 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 low-income communities. Speeds and data capacity should be sufficient to accommodate everyday applications such as video conferencing, telehealthThe use of electronic telecommunications technologies to deliver health care, health information, or health education at a distance. A related term, Telemedicine, generally indicates physician services., 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 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 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 increase 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 that lack 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 and the private sector should ensure that high-speed internet access incorporates consumer protections (see also Consumer Protections, Service Quality, and Reliability and AARP Consumer Rights and Protection Principles). This includes transparent pricing and billing. It also includes privacy protections (see also Data Privacy).
Policymakers should ensure net neutrality for internet service providers (see also Net Neutrality).
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 information that is accurate, timely, and standardized.
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.