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Cheap internet for low-income users spreads in Denver, but there’s more to the urban digital divide

Starry’s $15-a-month broadband sounds like a deal. So why isn’t everyone signing up?

At the PCs for People store at 1548 W. Alameda Ave. in Denver, the nonprofit sells wireless internet for people with qualified low incomes. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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When Starry internet service became available in his building this month, Craig Allen signed up. At $15 a month, it cost 50% more than his old plan but internet speeds were more than double, helping him feel he could do much more faster.

Allen’s one of the more digital savvy tenants at the Denver Housing Authority-managed Thomas Bean Towers, where low-income residents qualify for subsidized rent. He uses the internet to help him bank, communicate with family and learn about the world. But even though broadband is relatively cheap in his building, he said that many of his neighbors don’t order it.

“Oh yes, there’s a lot of people here who can’t afford it. The income here ranges from $1,000 to maybe $500 a month,” Allen said. “I want to say thank God for public housing because the majority of these people would be homeless, simple as that. …It can come down to internet or food and I think people would go with food first before they go with internet.”

In cities like Denver, where broadband is so prolific that availability is estimated at 99.94%, the digital divide is no longer about lack of internet service or limited to rural areas. A plethora of reasons exist as to why the divide persists in urban areas and the issue is gaining more attention from researchers, organizations and policymakers who debate whether it’s about accessibility, affordability or lack of understanding. 

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It’s a quandary that companies like Starry are trying to figure out. 

The Boston fixed-wireless internet provider, which lights up apartment buildings, launched in Denver this year. It typically charges $50 a month, but a cheaper offering, the $15 Starry Connect, is made possible by partnering with public housing. It’s part of the company’s mission “that everyone deserves great broadband,” said Stephan Andrade, Starry’s Denver general manager. 

To celebrate its contract with Denver Housing Authority, Starry internet had officials cut up a ticker tape of internet charges that low-income users won’t have with Starry’s $15-a-month broadband service. Pictured at the event held at at Thomas Bean Towers in Denver Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 are, from left to right, Starry CEO Chet Kanojia, Starry Denver General Manager Stephan Andrade, DHA resident Craig Allen and DHA Executive Director Ishmael Guerrero. (Provided by Starry)

This week, the company committed to making its 30-megabits per second service available to all 26,000 Denver Housing Authority residents by the end of next year. By offering it to an entire building, there’s no need for residents to pre-qualify on various federal programs, as some competing services require. If you’re a tenant, you qualify.

Even so, only an average of 30% of tenants sign up after 90 days, said Virginia Lam Abrams, Starry’s senior vice president of communications. She cites reasons such as tenants have another provider, like Comcast, or they may not be able to afford it. 

But it also may not just be about the cost, she added.

One building owner decided to pay for broadband service so that all his tenants could use Starry Connect for free.

“In that building, we have 55% penetration taking Starry Connect,” Abrams said. “What that says to us and the owner is that there are other barriers. It’s not just cost. If it’s free and it’s a great product, what’s stopping some of those folks from signing up?”

New reasons for digital divide

While it’s unclear how many people in urban America lack internet access, more than 20 million Americans have no access to broadband — wired or wireless, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance estimates that 15 million people live in urban and suburban communities.

And politicians are paying attention. At the CO Smart Cities Symposium last month, Rep. Diana DeGette pointed to U.S. Census data showing 20% of Denver’s households don’t have broadband. Many are in low-income neighborhoods in the northern and western parts of the city, she said.

“The fact that 1 in 5 households in our city do not have broadband internet may shock some but it’s actually far better than many other cities in this country — cities such as Detroit where 57% of its residents are currently living in homes without broadband internet,” she said during her speech. “If we are going to be serious about making our cities smarter by implementing all of these exciting new technologies and innovations that are being discussed here today, we also have to get serious about building the infrastructure needed to support those new technologies and making sure it’s available to everyone.”

Last spring, DeGette supported legislation to address this. The Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT would use $10 billion to expand broadband access in underserved areas of the country. 

Also moving along in the U.S. Senate is the Digital Equity Act of 2019, which would authorize $1.25 billion in federal grant funding be used on digital-inclusion programs

Why people don’t subscribe to broadband

Another company in America’s urban trenches is Comcast, which found success growing its $9.95-per month Internet Essentials program for certain low-income users. Last month, the program opened up to anyone eligible for public help, from food stamps and Pell Grants to Medicaid. 

Comcast now has 76,000 households in Colorado using the discounted service, for an estimated 304,000 Coloradans. The company asked people why they sign up. 

“The number one answer is that we use it for our kids to do homework,” David L. Cohen, Comcast senior executive vice president, said during an August interview. “And 98% say they think their kids are doing better in school because they have access to the internet. No. 2 answer, by the way, is either general information or to search and apply for jobs.” 

More: “The cruel irony of the digital divide” in Colorado: Urban poor are left behind even as access, technology improves

But as to why eligible users don’t subscribe? Comcast relies on researchers like John Horrigan, with the Technology Policy Institute, to figure that out. 

Cohen said Horrigan and other researchers have consistently found that the top barrier to adoption is “this bucket of digital literacy related issues. People not knowing how to use the internet, not understanding the relevance of the internet, what it means to them, how it will improve their quality of life, people being afraid of the internet.”

That’s why Comcast has long paired its internet service with free training on educational topics like how to use a computer or the internet, how to get things done online or how to keep digital data safe.

Researchers Colin Rhinesmith and Bibi Reisdorf have studied the urban digital divide for years and said low-income users fear other costs beyond the $10 or $15 for discounted service. 

There’s the extra cost of computers, or activation fees. There’s a monthly commitment, which is difficult if a person doesn’t have a job the next month. The signup process can be complicated. Others wonder what’s the catch. And some fear they will be surveilled. For many, however, it’s about money and whether the $10 or $15 is better used for food, electricity or mobile phone service.

However, one thing is clear: People don’t say no to internet because they aren’t educated or or understand why its relevant, said Reisdorf, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“There’s a stipulation that people are too uneducated to understand the value of the internet. That’s not true at all in my research,” Reisdorf said. “I’ve interviewed people who have been incarcerated for 30 to 40 years and they absolutely understand the importance of the internet.”

It’s more about the inconsistent access to internet, said Rhinesmith, an assistant professor at Boston’s Simmons University School of Library and Information Science.

For those who go without internet at home, they find it elsewhere, like a library or community center. The Denver Public Library, for example, has a program where patrons can borrow a wireless modem with free internet service for three weeks — just like a book.

“They get a patchwork of access — rural or urban — whether they rely on the public library, social services or a friend’s house,” he said. “Everybody understands the relevance because society is telling them they need to be online. A lot of people I talk to are unemployed, underemployed or working three jobs. That $10 is hard when you have a job one month but not the next.” 

Denver Housing Authority is slowly making sure that each of its 21 facilities have internet service. Currently, five don’t have anything, but four have more than one option, thanks to partnerships with Starry, Comcast, PCs for People and Live Wire Networks. The contract with Starry also provides free Wi-Fi in the lobby for residents.

“We want choice for our community,” said Jesse Burne, DHA’s digital-inclusion manager.

He also dreams of having tech hubs in each building so residents can get digital literacy training and access to computers. DHA has a mobile Chromebook lab that travels and offers training between buildings. But currently, there’s no money to buy computers for each building. 

Allen, the resident who signed up for Starry as soon as he heard the pitch, said that neighbors aren’t going to order the internet if they don’t have a computer.

“A lot of people in my community can’t afford laptops or a computer. I’m trying to get DHS to get us computers for our computer room. We had classes, but what’s the use of classes if people can’t continue to practice what they learn?” Allen said. “I’m hoping and praying someone out there is willing to donate computers to our program.”


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