The Device Divide is Hurting Americans. Here’s How We Solve It.

It’s time to recognize that closing the device divide is the next integral step to closing the digital divide. Absent immediate federal action, it will continue to prevent people across the country from connecting to the internet.

Although computers and tablets are critical for connecting to the internet, across the U.S, more than 1 in 10 households don’t have a computer. Many more households don’t have enough devices for everyone, forcing families to make difficult choices about which family members can connect and which can’t. It’s not that these households don’t want a computer; they can’t afford one. Just 59% of households making less than $30,000 a year have a computer.

The “device divide” is every bit as problematic as the “digital divide.” While there are government programs intended to help low-income consumers access devices, none of these programs will come even close to getting a device into the hands of everyone who needs one. Thus, absent well-funded and sustainable federal programs to get devices to those in need, we won’t end the device divide or the digital divide.

The Problem

Without a device, it’s extremely hard to apply for jobs, submit school work, enroll in government programs, or even connect with loved ones. Unfortunately this is a battle many low-income, elderly, and people of color face. Forty percent of low-income households don’t have a computer at all. Black American and Latinx American households are more than twice as likely as white households to not have a home computer. In addition to the households with no computers, many more households don’t have enough computers or tablets for each family member. This forces families to prioritize who can connect and when. Should a child get to go to online school, or should a parent get to work remotely? Should grandma get to do her telehealth appointment, or should mom get to do a virtual job interview? In a time when the average family is so connected, why are we forcing some families to make these impossible choices?

Although some households without a computer do have a mobile phone, can you imagine trying to write a paper for school while staring at a tiny screen and typing on a small touch screen keyboard? Plus, many mobile plans come with data caps, so you could run out of data before you can even finish your project!

Additionally, while some people are lucky enough to have a library or other community anchor institution that allows the public to use computers, it’s unfeasible and unfair to force low-income consumers to rely on these benefits. To use a computer, you’d first have to get to the library – something that is difficult if you live far away or don’t have a car. And then, what if you need to use a computer after regular business hours? Should we be forcing low-income consumers to only participate in modern life from 9-5? People need to connect when they need to connect, and the only way that will be possible is if each family member who needs to use the internet has a quality device at home.

Why the Other Government Programs Won’t Cut it

There are a handful of government programs created by Congress that enable low-income consumers to access free or low-cost devices. However, all of these programs have significant shortfalls that will prevent them from closing the device divide, even when working in tandem.

For example, the Emergency Connectivity Fund primarily offers devices to K-12 students, leaving postsecondary students, parents, senior citizens, and anyone else who needs a device out of luck. Moreover, many schools take back the devices when school is not in session, leaving students unable to connect over the summer. However, the internet is a four-season need.

Additionally, although states can use money from the Digital Equity Grant program, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, or the Capital Projects Fund for connected devices, this is just one of many allowable uses. If states choose to use their funds for other purposes, their device divide will remain.

Another option is the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides $100 device discounts. Unfortunately, it has been relatively unused, because it requires consumers to pay a copay they often cannot afford and because many providers do not participate in that component of the program. The ACP also limits the device discount to just one per household, making it impossible for families to connect simultaneously without additional assistance.

Finally, because all of these programs are funded through one-time Congressional allocations, it’s unlikely there will be funding available to replace broken or outdated devices. Typical devices last 5-8 years before breaking, or becoming severely outdated. Low-income consumers should be afforded the same opportunity to own a high-quality, functioning device as others who can afford to replace their computers when they are no longer suitable.

The Solutions

Absent immediate federal action, the device divide will continue to prevent people across the country from connecting to the internet.The federal government can take action by creating a device voucher program and getting more refurbished devices into the market.

A Device Voucher Program

In 2021, Senator Raphael Warnock and Representative Donald McEachin introduced the “Device Access for Every American Act.” That legislation would create a voucher program that enables low-income households to get up to two connected devices directly from a retailer or refurbisher. Although a version of the Device Access for Every American Act was included within Build Back Better, that legislative package has stalled, and it’s unclear if negotiations to pass a modified version will succeed.

Luckily the Federal Communications Commission is well poised to pick up where Congress left off. It has the authority to create a device voucher program, modeled off the Device Access for Every American Act, within the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USF is intended to facilitate universal access to advanced telecommunications and information services at a reasonable rate. As a part of this work, the Commission can create a new program. In fact, the FCC created the Lifeline program (which subsidizes phone and broadband service for low-income consumers) using its existing authority. It was only later that Congress codified the Lifeline program. And, the Commission has already recognized that the inability to afford devices jeopardizes universal connectivity, noting in a Lifeline proceeding that the “lack of access to affordable equipment, including computers[…] is a significant barrier to broadband adoption among low-income consumers.”

In many respects, a device voucher program within the USF would be more effective than a Congressionally-funded program. Since USF programs are funded through continuous assessments and not a one-time appropriation, a USF device voucher program should have enough funding to replace broken or outdated devices. A one-time Congressional investment, while helpful, would likely lead to a re-opened device divide as soon as the fund runs out of money and the devices offered are no longer functional.

The Commission could also build upon the model of the Device Access for Every American Act by raising the household limit for devices. This would enable more than two family members to connect simultaneously, and ensure that we aren’t forcing low-income households to make impossible choices that wealthier families never have to consider.

Refurbishing Devices

The pandemic’s surge in demand for devices has led to a global chip shortage. Chips are required to build new computers – but not to refurbish older computers! Given the realities of our nation’s supply chain, a device voucher program on its own won’t be able to close the device divide. There simply aren’t enough devices available right now. Thus, a second part of the equation is getting more refurbished devices into the market.

Congress has been thinking about this issue too. For example, the COVS Act, led by Representative Abigail Spanberger, would direct hundreds of thousands of out-of-service computers from the federal government to nonprofit refurbishers. The refurbishers would then provide them for free to people in need – including students and veterans. Similarly, the Broadband Adoption and Opportunity Act, led by Representative Tom O’Halleran, would establish a pilot program for public-private partnerships to refurbish devices and offer them, for free or for purchase, to those in need. Both bills would limit the impact of the chip shortage and get devices directly into the hands of people who need them! 

For as long as an individual doesn’t have their own computer, they won’t be able to connect as reliably as they should. Existing programs aren’t going to fix this problem – so Congress and the FCC need to do more. It’s time to recognize that closing the device divide is the next integral step to closing the digital divide. We urge you to tell Congress and the FCC that they must create a device voucher program and put more refurbished devices into the market.