Computers Remain Out of Reach for Millions — Barriers to Computer Adoption

Computers Remain Out of Reach for Millions — Barriers to Computer Adoption

Posted on February 02, 2022 by Maribel Martinez, consultant with The Patterson Foundation
According to the American Community Survey (ACS), about 10% of Florida households report having only a smartphone and no other type of computing device (2019). In 2019, there were 7,905,832 households in Florida, which indicates that roughly 800,000 homes across the state lacked the essential large-screen devices to use the internet effectively.

Since the main reason for not owning a computer is its cost, and the likelihood of households with computing devices but no home internet subscription is low, it is possible that the number of households without a computing device (or internet) overall may actually be higher today than the data reported by the ACS.

Exacerbated by economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital divide is possibly widening everywhere, but especially in communities of color, among older adults, people with disabilities, in rural areas, and among asset-limited households. Table 1 shows the number of homes in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties and the percentage of households in those counties without a computer or internet subscription, according to ACS 5-year estimate tables.

Table 1 Percentage of Households without a Computer or Internet Subscription
Percentage of Households without a Computer or Internet Subscription

Yet, prior to COVID-19, a popular assumption was that everyone was online. In truth, people who cannot afford a desktop, laptop, or tablet make do with a smartphone which can have serious negative consequences, including identity theft, but can also be impractical for activities such as online learning and remote work. According to Pew Research Center, 86% of Americans reported owning a smartphone in 2019. This is cited as the secondary reason for not having a home internet subscription — the primary reason being its cost.

In essence, smartphones are a workaround for people who want and need to be online but cannot afford a home internet subscription or a computer. Lower-income and education levels are also associated with exclusive smartphone use, which is evident across communities of color. Table 2 shows the number of households in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties who own only a smartphone and no other type of computing device, based on 2019 5-year estimates by ACS.

Table 2 Percentage of Households with Only a Smartphone
DA4A GraphAccess

The COVID-19 pandemic helped shine a light on the digital divide nationally, when everyone's ability to live, work, learn, and play was disrupted in different but far-reaching ways regardless of age. One of the populations most memorably affected by the pandemic was school-age children. There is an abundance of articles and news stories documenting the struggle to shift from in-person to virtual learning starting in 2020. Still, those effects were complicated further or made entirely impossible for those without home internet access and computers. Parents and teachers shared their impressions as they coped with shifting to virtual learning in 2020 on PBS' special series Life Without Internet. It becomes clear that continuity of education is synonymous with having a computer one knows how to use connected to affordable home broadband.

Everyone can have use for a computer if given the opportunity. Becoming a computing device adopter is related first to the affordability of the device and the internet connection, as discussed, but is also tightly connected to understanding the relevance of the computer in one's life.

For instance, the needs of an older adult to be online will be very different from the needs of a young student. An older adult may use a computer or tablet for entertainment, telehealth, communication with friends and family, and to keep up with current events. They may learn to order prescription medications online, use maps to get around their community safely, or order groceries – needs that differ significantly from a younger person's reasons to be online. Another reason people do not purchase a computer is their inability to use it. According to Pew Research Center, 26% of adults who buy a new computer say they need outside help to set it up. Suppose over one-fourth of computer purchasers need help to unbox a new device. In that case, they probably lack the digital skills needed to use the device effectively once opened and in a way that extends its life and performs as anticipated, in addition to the reasons cited above.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a 2021 federal program designed to make the internet and computing devices more affordable through discounts based on household eligibility, created unprecedented opportunities for people to subscribe to the internet more affordably and make one-time purchases for laptops and tablets from participating providers. However, even with the up to $100 discount on computers (limited to one per household), consumers were required to pay a one-time copayment between $10–$50 plus the remaining balance of the device's purchase price after the $100 discount. For asset-limited households everywhere, the discount was insufficient. The EBB did not include any provisions for computer training, but eventually, the EBB did evolve into the Affordable Connectivity Plan, which is now available.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), spurred by a national conversation around the digital divide, created landmark legislation and new opportunities to millions for whom the internet and computers are simply prohibitive costs to do what many of us take for granted each day: live, work, learn, and play using a computer. The nation will certainly benefit from new or improved digital infrastructure investments in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Yet, the national focus on broadband may continue to stall progress for asset-limited households who are still unable to afford computers, even when coupled with low-cost broadband subscriptions.

Approaches to digital equity must include all three elements: low-cost broadband, affordable computers, and digital literacy training. A low-cost broadband subscription will reduce security risks for smartphone-only households but do little to help students do their homework or permit people to work from home. Likewise, a free computer will become a paperweight without an affordable internet subscription and basic computer training. If new computers remain out of reach for millions due to cost, bolstering e-waste recycling and computer refurbishment efforts could increase the supply of quality computers for students, working adults, and older adults who are eagerly waiting to cross the digital divide.

Join us next month when the computer marketplace and refurbishment ecosystems will be explored.




Atske, S. & Perrin, A. (July 16, 2021). Home Broadband Adoption, Computer Ownership Vary by Race, Ethnicity in the U.S. Retrieved from

Vogels, E. A. (August 19, 2021). Despite Growth, Rural Americans Have Consistently Lower Levels of Technology Ownership than Urbanites and Lower Broadband Adoption than Suburbanites. Retrieved from

Anderson, M. (June 13, 2019). Mobile Technology and Home Broadband 2019. Retrieved from

McClain, C., Vogels, E. A., Perrin, A., Sechopoulos, S., & Lee, R. (September 1, 2021). Parents, Their Children, and School During the Pandemic. Retrieved from

McClain, C., Vogels, E. A., Perrin, A., Sechopoulos, S. & Lee, R. (September 1, 2021). Navigating Technological Challenges. Retrieved from

Atske, S. & Perrin, A. (July 16, 2021). Home Broadband Adoption, Computer Ownership Vary by Race, Ethnicity in the U.S. Retrieved from

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