During the last few days of 2015, I was pleased to hear the announcement from Charter Communications that it intends to offer high-speed, low-cost broadband connectivity to seniors and low-income consumers. It will be available within six months of the close of its pending merger with Time Warner Cable (and the acquisition of Bright House Communications). This new program will join similar offerings from other broadband service providers such as Comcast and CenturyLink, and one soon to be offered by AT&T.
These programs are particularly important for low-income older adults. According to a Pew survey released in December 2015, currently only 45% of adults age 65 and older have a broadband connection at home. Among older adults who are low-income, the broadband adoption rates drop significantly.
These low adoption stats are particularly troubling because few populations stand to benefit from the Internet more than older adults. Online shopping may be a convenience for many of us, but it’s a lifeline for older adults with mobility challenges. For the aging population more prone to social isolation, connections forged through social media can drastically improve quality of life. And Internet-enabled advances in telemedicine can enhance health and wellness and allow older individuals to “age in place” at home, rather than in assisted-living facilities.
However, a web of obstacles keeps many older individuals from embracing these life-changing possibilities. Cost can be a significant factor, but it’s not the only barrier for our seniors. Research shows that the unfamiliarity, skepticism, and even fear that some older adults have about the Internet can be much bigger hurdles. More than one-third of surveyed seniors don’t feel the Internet has anything relevant to offer, while more than 75 percent say they would need help learning how to use an unfamiliar new digital device.
Charter isn’t the only company with plans to connect, or already connecting, low-income seniors with low-cost broadband services. Comcast has pilot efforts in California and Florida to extend its “Internet Essentials” program to low-income seniors by forging partnerships with non-profits and municipal agencies equipped to help older adults build digital literacy skills. A program from AT&T, “Digital You,” also offers digital literacy and training programs for older adults and others in the community.
I look forward to more efforts from the private sector to promote broadband adoption and close the digital divide. Getting older adults online will ensure they have the tools needed to succeed in today’s digital world.