STILLWATER — Life in the 21st century has increasingly become interdependent with internet access, yet the cost of maintaining a monthly connection exceeds what far-too-many Oklahomans can afford, helping to promote a very real “digital divide.”
“Internet access is crucial in today’s society, particularly high-speed connections or broadband,” said Brian Whitacre, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension economist. “Whether for keeping in touch with family and friends, searching for jobs, staying aware of local events or applying for government programs, having access to the internet is required for many aspects of daily life.”
A study by Horrigan and Duggan indicates approximately 60 percent of non-broadband users cite cost as a primary reason why they do not have a connection at home, with 33 percent of respondents saying cost is the most important reason.
“With average monthly costs ranging from $30 to $100, broadband affordability is a major concern for households across Oklahoma,” Whitacre said. “A 2015 survey indicated that only 44 percent of Oklahoma households with incomes of less than $25,000 have a broadband connection. This is less than half of the 91 percent for Oklahoma households with incomes greater than $100,000.”
It is also more than 20 percentage points lower than the overall 66 percent state average for households. But there are options available, if one knows where to look.
For example, two of the largest internet providers in Oklahoma — AT&T and Cox — have programs that offer price reductions on broadband connections for low-income households. These programs are known as “Access for AT&T” and “Cox Connect2Compete,” and at the time of this writing cost $5 to $10 per month.
“Eligibility typically depends on participation in federal programs such as SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or NSLP, National School Lunch Program, and whether or not a person has any outstanding debt with the specific company,” Whitacre said.
While the download speeds provided are typically slower than the official 2016 U.S. Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband, they are significantly faster than dial-up modem access.
“An especially important aspect of these options is that, unlike promotional offers occasionally made by broadband providers, the costs cited when you are approved stay the same for the entire length of the program,” Whitacre said.
Program length for “Access for AT&T” runs to April 2020. AT&T wireline technology covers approximately 65 percent of Oklahoma. The program does not cover mobile/smartphone plans.
Approved families for “Cox Connect2Compete” will receive reduced price internet for 2 years, with no installation fee or deposit required. Households must be in an area served by Cox.
PCs for people
A nonprofit organization that offers inexpensive broadband service using Sprint’s cellular network, PCs for People provides an easy-to-use Wi-Fi device that can link to smartphones, laptops, tablets and desktop computers; up to 10 devices.
“As long as the Sprint network offers service in a specific location, the Wi-Fi device should work,” Whitacre said. “If interested, first check to ensure Sprint offers coverage in your area either by contacting the nearest Sprint office or online at http://www.coverage.sprint.dom.
The program is available to anyone below 200 percent of the current federal poverty threshold. However, users must prepay for the Wi-Fi device and the months of service selected.
“One of the more attractive parts of PCs for People is that a user does not have to participate in a federal program such as SNAP or NSLP,” Whitacre said. “Another plus is there are no data limits and no ‘throttling down’ of speeds so participants can use the device to stream TV programs and movies, download videos or whatever online service they wish.”
Libraries have long been a common source of internet access. Typically this has required patrons to make a trip to the library to use their computers or wireless connection. However, recently some libraries across the United States have initiated programs that essentially “loan out the internet” by allowing individuals to check out mobile hotspot devices.
“These devices use cellular networks, the same as smartphones,” Whitacre said. “They can be used inside a home; taken to restaurants, community centers and the like; and even go on a road trip. As long as the cellular network provider used by the hotspot has service in that area, the devices will provide broadband access.”
Typically the hotspots can be used to hook up multiple devices. Individual libraries have specific policies about who can check out the hotspot devices and the length of the loan period. Generally speaking, most libraries with such a program allow adults with a valid library card to check out the devices, with the loan period ranging from one week to one month.
Currently library programs are more popular in urban areas; however, ongoing research by the Institute for Museum and Library Services suggests such programs are viable in rural communities as well.
Whitacre has authored an OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources fact sheet, AGEC 1065, “Internet options for low-income households in Oklahoma,” containing more detailed information. The fact sheet is available online at http://osufacts.okstate.edu.
“The fact sheet authored by Dr. Whitacre is incredibly helpful for Oklahoma digital inclusion programs and others providing guidance to community members on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Siefer added the NDIA encourages all states to follow Oklahoma’s lead in creating similar informative documents and work to widely distribute them.