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Pew's simplistic survey of Internet importance during Covid-19

How essential has the Internet been during this pandemic? Rant on. Read down the April Pew report with the moniker, “53% of Americans say the Internet has been essential during the Covid-19 pandemic. Go past the concerns about whether students can complete work, past the political debate about whether the government should provide Internet access -- there are some interesting nuggets and puzzling findings. During the Covid-19 outbreak, only 31% of the 65+ said the Internet was essential; 49% said it was important but not essential, and 20% said it was not too/not at all important, with likely those with more education believing it to be essential.   Given that response, it also followed that those over age 65 were not too worried about being able to pay the bill for smartphone or broadband use. 

It may help to place this view in the tech context of social isolation and telehealth.  The Pew response on whether tech was ‘essential’ is intriguing. Perhaps a follow-up question asking ‘essential for what’ would have clarified.  Streaming video?  Searching for a good restaurant? Consider the hand-wringing that surfaced recently in that same time period about lack of access among the oldest which contributed to social isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nursing homes struggled to link residents to remote care telehealth services. A plethora of tech providers offered free or low-cost tech for seniors. And senior living organizations were caught short and hurried to deploy tech for telehealth and engagement with families.

Also asked without context – should the government play a role in extending access?  Again, no specific purposes for determining ‘essential’ were outlined. The general answer, divided by party, was that it was not the responsibility of the government to provide either Internet or cellphone connectivity.  That was likely before unemployment in the US reached its highest level since the Great Depression -- with 20.5 million jobs lost.  A few other relevant details: prior to the pandemic layoffs, 20% of the 65+ population were working – not so likely any more.  Job seekers’ primary first stop has been online. If the government doesn’t pay or subsidize, smartphone access averages $60-95/month for one person and broadband access is around $65/month. Thus $125 is the lowest level of cost for both services for just one person per month -- that adds up.

AARP’s 2020 survey provides more context.   In their most recent tech survey, 81% of those 60-69 and 62% of those aged 70+ owned smartphones, with the vast majority in both age groups using them daily for a wide variety of purposes, leading with connecting to others via messaging or email. Now place this usage in the context of a pandemic in which older adults are not only isolated into solely depending on the Internet, depending on where they live, but they are at some risk of being ignored completely simply based on their age – just as the country begins to open up.  How essential (and perhaps unavailable) is the Internet during a pandemic? Perhaps, as the IEEE observes, broadband access is a human right. Many older adults still don't have the technology they need to obtain essential information and services. Asking the right question is essential. Rant off.

Comments

Anybody paying $60-95 (!) for smartphone access is wasting money, unless they need astonishing minutes and data. I pay Consumer Cellular a bit less than $40/month for TWO phones -- mine and my wife's. We share minutes/data and hardly ever go over our service tiers. When we do, CC bumps us to next tier -- for maybe $5 more for that month. There are no per minute/megabyte surcharges and it's easy to revert to lower tier following month. Customer service is brilliant.

Here's the problem, first sentence:

The pricing practices of the Big Four cell-phone carriers can be so convoluted that you almost need an advanced degree in math to decipher them.

Why go with Big Four when multiple providers like Consumer Cellular resell those identical networks for much lower rates? And, apparently, at least with Consumer Cellular, provide much better service.

Seniors, especially, should be guided to better, more flexible, and less expensive choices.

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