Fixing Access to Internet as Tech Usage Surges Among Seniors During Pandemic

Published in Pawtucket Times on May 10, 2021

Over a year where a global pandemic has significantly reduced social interaction, technology becomes more important than ever, especially for home bound seniors. A newly released 39-page report from the Washington, DC-based AARP found that more older adults (44 percent) view tech more positively as a way to stay connected than they did before COVID-19. The findings indicate that 4 out of 5 adults age 50 and over-relied on technology to stay connected and in contact with family and friends.

Yet, the researchers found that the greater adoption and reliance on technology is uneven because 15 percent of adults 50 and over do not have access to any type of internet, and 60 percent say the cost of high-speed internet is a problem.

Pandemic Increases Use of Technology

“Technology-enabled older adults to better weather the isolation of the pandemic, from ordering groceries to telehealth visits to connecting with loved ones,” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in an April 21 statement announcing the release of the report, 2021 Tech Trends and the 50+: Top 10 Big Trends. “But it also exacerbated the divide. So much more is done online, and the 38 million disconnected older adults are being further left out,” she says. 

The report’s findings indicate that annual tech spending by those age 50 and over exponentially increased – from $394 to $1144. The top three tech purchases were smartphones, smart TVs, and earbuds/Bluetooth headsets. 

According to the researchers, using technology to connect with family and friends across multiple forms of communication has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many say they are using video chats (45 percent), texting (37 percent), emailing (26 percent), and phone (29 percent) more now than before the pandemic’s onset. As of 2019, about half had never even used video chat, but one year later they did. Seventy percent have, with 1 in 3 using video chat weekly. Tech use among the age 50 plus community increased particularly in wearable devices – from 17 percent to 27 percent.

The AARP study’s findings indicate that the older participant’s use of smartphones increased dramatically, especially among the homebound. For instance, use for ordering groceries grew from just 6 percent to 24 percent; use for personal health increased from 28 percent to 40 percent for activities like telehealth visits, ordering prescriptions, or even making appointments; use for health and fitness information increased 25 percent to 44 percent and use for financial transactions increased 37 percent to 53 percent.

Weekly use of streaming increased to 58 percent from 44 percent, a significant shift in how the 50+ consume entertainment says the researchers.

Although the study’s researchers also found that half of the age 50 plus wanted to learn more about using tech (54 percent), cost (38 percent), awareness/lack of knowledge (37 percent), and privacy concerns (34 percent) were the top self-reported barriers holding them back from adopting and using the new technology.  

“Privacy concerns continue to be a factor when it comes to using tech, with 83 percent lacking confidence that what they do online remains private,” says the researchers.   

Bringing U.S. Broadband Networks to Millions of Americans

According to Washington, DC-based Free Press, a nonprofit group that is part of the media reform or media democracy movement, more than 77 million Americans lack adequate internet service at home, either because they do not have access or can’t afford it.  

Because of the “stark digital divide,” a much a higher percentage of white families use home broadband internet than Black or Latino families. The ongoing pandemic clearly showed these disparities, particularly for students who struggled to connect while learning remotely, compounding learning loss and social isolation for those students.

Although Congress has already included $3.2 billion in emergency funding for broadband access in the 2021 COVID-19 Stimulus Bill this year, President Biden has called for more funding to increase access to the nation’s U.S. Broadband Networks. Biden recently unveiled the American Jobs Plan Act of 2021, a $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure package, which includes $100 billion in funding to build affordable, reliable high-speed broadband infrastructure throughout the nation to reach 100 percent coverage, as a goal. It would also ensure that all Americans have lower costs for the internet.

Biden’s proposal would build “future proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved (rural and tribal lands) and underserved areas to reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage. It calls for reducing the cost of broadband to allow anyone who wants high-quality and reliable broadband internet to afford it and to promote widespread adoption. It funds the building of high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage, bringing access to unserved and underserved areas across the nation. It would also promote price transparency and competition among internet providers. This would be accomplished by lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.

The internet item falls within a broader “infrastructure proposal”. Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls for the passage of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, stating: “I’m especially pleased that President Biden’s American Jobs Plan addresses some of our most pressing priorities here in Rhode Island. It will rebuild our national transportation infrastructure by modernizing 20,000 miles of roads and doubling federal support for public transit. It will put us on track towards a more sustainable future by electrifying our transportation system and building a network of half a million electric vehicle charging stations. It will ensure every American has access to clean drinking water by replacing lead service lines and pipes that still serve up to ten million homes in our country. It will double the number of registered apprenticeships so that more Americans can take advantage of the jobs this plan creates.” 

It’s Time to Seriously Negotiate

GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, along with members of their Caucuses, are united in their opposition to the passage of Biden’s infrastructure proposal. An insurmountable wedge was created by the bill’s expansive definition of infrastructure, to includes major funding investments for transportation, housing, eldercare workforce development, and access to broadband, to name a few. It even includes climate change policies, too. GOP lawmakers have a very narrow definition. Simply put, they say just include funding to fix roads, bridges, ports and waterways, and expanding broadband.  

Ultimately, another deal-breaker is how the costly legislative proposal is paid for. Biden calls for the costs to be offset by a corporate tax increase while Republicans see user fees such as road-related taxes and unspent COVID-19 relief funding, to cover costs.

Speaking recently at a press conference at the University of Louisville, McConnell said Democrats should expect “zero” support from the GOP for Biden’s big-ticket infrastructure and social spending proposal. He called on Democrats to support a Senate GOP counteroffer to Biden’s costly infrastructure proposal, costing a mere $568 billion (for roads and bridges, ports, waterways and expanded broadband).

There are many provisions of Biden’s American Jobs Plan of 2021 that both Republicans and Democrats agree on, including investing in roads, bridges, rail lines, ports electricity grid improvements, and increasing access to broadband. Biden says “he’s prepared to negotiate” the cost of the package and how it is paid for. 

So, it’s now time for McCarthy and McConnell to step up to the negotiating table to address their political and philosophical differences over Biden’s definition of infrastructure and funding.

It’s time to send a bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden to sign.

·For more details about AARP’s Tech Study, go to https://press.aarp.org/2021-4-21-Tech-Usage-Among-Older-Adults-Skyrockets-During-Pandemic.

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