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Internet for Seniors on Low and Fixed Incomes

The internet has changed the game for most people today. That includes seniors. The information, news, and connections you need are just a few clicks away online. Seniors who are looking for information about the internet and how to use it will find a wealth of options available to them today.

A Brief History of the Internet

Have you heard of the Internet? Of course! Even if you haven’t been online you can’t avoid the articles on the World Wide Web, e-commerce, eTrade, eBay, and even eToys. Mainstream magazines now devote entire sections of their publications to “e-news”. But the Internet is a relatively recent phenomena.

The Internet came to life as a result of the cold war. It occurred to people in the Pentagon that the US was vulnerable to an atomic strike which would wipe out its communications infrastructure. The best defense, it seemed, was to avoid having a single nexus of communication, but instead to have a scattered network of “nodes,” each of which could communicate with all the others, automatically bypassing any nodes which didn’t work, in order to withstand loss of any part of the network. With that ARPANET (Advanced Research Project Agency Network) was born, initially as a military network. In 1969, the first four hosts were established, UCLA, Stanford University, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

Initially, the network was designed to allow users to log on to all other computers on the network in order to share files, but in 1972, email software was developed, and email quickly became the most-used part of ARPANET. By 1984, there were 1,000 hosts, and usage had grown so much it was necessary to develop a system to keep track of the network’s sites, so the Domain Name System (DNS) was created. This system allowed the nodes to be given names, rather than cryptic numerical addresses, so Stanford University became stanford.edu to the users of the system, and the DNS automatically converted that name into the numerical address of their server.

By 1987, there were 10,000 hosts, and by 1989 there were 100,000 hosts on the network, all of which were military and educational sites. In 1990, the decision was made to open the network to commercial use, and the Internet as we know it today was born.

The Internet was still difficult for the average person to use, and required a fair amount of computer technical ability. Oftentimes, logging on to different computers was done using TelNet, which gave the user a plain black and white screen. The user had to log on to each computer, and keep track of the user ID and passwords, as well as the function keys and commands for getting around their system. Also, with over 100,000 systems attached, better methods of finding information were needed, and tools like gopher, and archie and veronica were developed to find and organize files. These tools would create lists of files for users to peruse, based on the subjects they requested. At this point all documents were plain text files, with no formatting of any kind.

The real transformation to the Internet came in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. He developed a system using hypertext links which would allow users to read a document, and jump directly from that document to other related documents, by using these links. To create these hypertext documents, he developed a language called Hyper Text Markup Language or HTML. This development really fired the development of the Internet, and by 1992 there were 1,000,000 hosts, compared to 100,000 in 1989. By 1993, there were 2,000,000 hosts, and by 1994 there were 3,000,000.

In 1993, a software package, called a browser, was developed to make it easier for users to navigate the World Wide Web. It was called Mosaic, and was developed by a student at the University of Illinois, Marc Andreessen. He left the University the next year and started Netscape, which was the most widely-used commercial Web browser for many years, until it was eventually surpassed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Much of today’s jargon was first coined in 1992 and 1993, words like “cyber” and “surfing”. Also coined at that time was the word “firewall”, since the growth of the Internet had resulted in the need to develop better systems to protect privacy and prevent unauthorized access to private files. Encryption systems were being developed at that time, for the same reason, including Pretty Good Privacy (PCP).

Compuserve started up in 1989, and America On Line in 1992. Initially, both of these were closed systems, where users could log on to see their proprietary content for a fee, but the popularity of the Internet grew so much that by 1995 they were both forced to add Internet access to their systems. Their users, which had been paying a fee for the information they used, were now able to get much of it for free on the Internet, a fact which completely changed the way these companies did business.

By 1994, the Internet was really coming into its own. Online communities were created, like Blacksburg Village. Cybermalls began springing up and cyber banking was emerging.

With the good came the bad, and “spam” emerged. No one seems to know why it’s called spam, but the usual story is that it’s based on a song which had lyrics which consisted of nothing but the word “spam”, sung over an over again. In other words, it was something which filled the airwaves with useless information. Another story is that it comes from the perception that Spam is a food with no nutritional value.

Spam became news when two lawyers, Cantor and Siegel, decided to advertise their program to provide green cards to aliens by filling every newsgroup they could find with postings advertising their services. Most of these newsgroups were on subjects which bore no relation to the subject, and the users of these services were enraged at being subjected to blatant commercialism. They retaliated by “flaming” the attorneys, or posting searing, negative comments about them. Although Cantor and Siegel sent their advertising to newsgroups, the word “spam” has come to include any unrequested commercial email solicitations.

With 3,000,000 hosts by 1994, new systems of organizing information were needed, and two Stanford students rose to the cause and created a directory called Yahoo. Yahoo was a directory which primarily depended on people contacting them to let them know what information was available, which they then organized somewhat like an online encyclopedia. Other developers were creating things called “worms” and “spiders” and “crawlers” which went out and searched for information and returned lists of sites by category.

By 1995, there were 6,000,000 hosts on the Internet, and there were 12,000,000 by 1996. By this time, all sorts of commercial applications were being developed, including FedEx’s package tracking services, Amazon’s online book store, American Airlines’ online ticket sales, and a host of others. Traffic had grown exponentially, and the cost of using the Internet was going down as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) went to flat monthly fees instead of hourly rates.

By 1997, there were 19,000,000 hosts, and the entities that track Internet usage decided they needed to find better ways to do so, so they changed they way they counted hosts, and host counts for years after 1997 are based on different methods. Tracking users is more difficult than tracking hosts, however, according the NUA Internet Survey, there were about 158,000,000 users on the Internet in March of 1999.

By 1999, almost all major business have a Web site, and many are transacting business or providing customer service online. Consumers are becoming comfortable buying products and services online, so online retailing has exploded. Email has consistently remained the highest volume usage of the Internet, and has become so pervasive that not having an Internet email address is a detriment to anyone in business. In short, the Internet has evolved in just a few years from something for “techies” and “geeks”, to a part of mainstream America.

Older Adults Embracing Technology

It’s taken a little time, but older adults are becoming more connected every year. Chances are high that your friends are regularly online, texting and looking at restaurant reviews on their smart phones.

One study, the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, found that seniors are well-wired when it comes to technology.

  • 85% of older boomers (57-65) have a cell phone; 61% of this group has a desk top computer and 49% have a laptop.
  • 76% of the silent generation (66-74) have a cell phone; 54% have a desk top computer and 39% have a laptop.
  • 63% of the GI generation (75+) have a cell phone; 31% have a desk top and 20% have a laptop.

In addition, another survey found that those 65 and older “are among the least likely groups to go online, but once online, they are enthusiastic emailers and information searchers.” Does this sound like you?

Once adopted, using email and the Internet becomes as much a part of your day as walking to the mailbox.

Learning To Use Technology

One of the biggest hurdles for seniors embracing technology is the how-to. The good news is that using a computer is easier than programming a VCR. Remember those things? Ok, bad example.

How about easier than driving a car, preparing a dinner, balancing a checkbook, or any other daily task. Seriously. Learning to use a computer is as easy as any of your daily tasks.

And though the pace of technology—the constant release of new devices, new applications, etc.—is sometimes dizzying, usability becomes easier every year. Product developers want their products to be intuitive and out-of-the-box easy.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have a child, grandkid, friend or other relative teach you the basics of computing, you’re in luck. There are a number of options:

  • Your local Area Agency on Aging can direct you to a nearby senior center offering computer classes.
  • Public libraries offer computer classes and/or assistance from library staff.
  • Community and junior colleges
  • In Google, type computer classes for seniors, and you’ll find all kinds of online classes

What Are the Benefits of Having Internet Access as a Senior?

Having access to the internet is important to many seniors today. Imagine being able to connect with anyone at any time. One of the key benefits of providing this access to seniors is that it opens the door for new opportunities and improves the overall quality of life. Instead of having to rely on others, seniors can learn how to navigate the internet rather easily. And, once they do, they have a world of opportunity available to them. There are very few drawbacks to this connection, but it can provide an incredible opportunity.

According to Seniors, Being Connected is Important

The National Council on Aging’s (NCOA) 2013 Aging Survey revealed that 40% of seniors feel that staying connected with family and friends is most important to maintaining a high quality of life. An important means of staying connected is through the use of technology: phone, texting, email, etc.

The study found that 83% of seniors said it was important for seniors to use technology. The respondents said that technology allows them to 1) keep up with the world 2) learn new things, and 3) stay mentally sharp.

Social Connections are Important to Your Health

The mail is one way to connect with people and the outside world. Email, texting, and Skyping are other ways. Older adults don’t often get the kind of social connections that keep them healthy. And as these studies report, remaining social is an important component to healthy living.

A Drexel University study found that “social connections may help to control disease risks and reduce mortality in older adults, and that lack of social connections carries a risk of mortality similar to that of diabetes mellitus.”

Another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality. Social isolation is associated with:

The study found that loneliness was more common in women, the elderly, the less educated and those with lower income.

Many seniors aren’t as active socially as they once were. Some are simply isolated from family and friends by geography or physical disability. Others may not have the resources (money, car, technology) to stay in touch with loved ones.

Though technology can’t take the place of actual face-to-face connections, it can provide a relatively low-cost way to stay connected.

What Types of Things Can a Senior Do on the Internet?

The internet is an open door to a wide range of avenues. It provides a connection to various businesses and services that can meet many of your needs. Most of the time, access to websites, information, and other resources costs you nothing except having that internet connection. But, it can provide you with answers to just about any questions you may have. Some of the key ways that the internet can be helpful to seniors are below, though many other benefits exist as well.

Meet New People

Use the internet to connect with other people. Social media websites like Facebook are a good place to start. They cost nothing to use but allow you to connect with new people as well as friends and family. You may be able to play a bigger role in the daily lives of your extended family or find new friends to chat with about anything.

Play Games

A variety of online gaming options are available through the internet. This includes a wide range of paid-for and free websites. It is possible not only to play these games but also to play against others. From simple card games to poker and adventure style games, there’s much to explore here.

Learn Something New

Many seniors wish they could keep learning. You can online. You can enroll in free educational courses. You can do research of your own on just about any topic. You can explore a wide range of websites dedicated to tasks you would like to handle. Watch videos of how to do something. There are endless options here.

Keep Up on the News

The internet provides fast, up to the minute information to those that need it. Because of this, many seniors need to have a reliable internet connection. You can learn what is happening in your neighborhood or around the globe.

Voice Opinions

You can play as much of a role in politics, local neighborhood life, decision making, and much more using the internet. Make key decisions about your views by researching them. Make sure others know about them, too.

Gather Insight into Medical and Health Needs

Many times, the internet proves to be an incredibly helpful resource for gathering information. You need to know if you should seek out medical care. You want to know what your symptoms mean. On the other hand, you may need a well trained, experienced doctor who may not be available in your area. Not only can you find these professionals online, but you can also get immediate help when you need it.

From using it as a tool for information to utilizing the internet to help you solve problems, there are many ways this single resource can prove to be invaluable to you. Most seniors find that, once they learn how to connect and use the internet, it is an incredible resource for everything they need and want.

My left hand goes numb when I sit at my desk typing for extended periods. Why is that? And what can I do about it? A quick Google search gave me the probable diagnosis and self-treatment. Problem solved. No doctor’s visit.

It’s not always that easy, but the Internet is a great place to start to figure out what ails you, especially as the quality of online “symptom checkers” increase.

In fact, 35% of U.S. adults use the Internet to figure out a medical condition, according to a Pew Health Online 2013 survey. Using online resources helped a number of people seek the care they needed. Among some of the findings are:

  • 46% said the medical information they found online led them to think they needed medical attention.
  • 38% said it was something they could take care of at home.
  • 41% of online diagnosers said a medical professional confirmed their diagnosis.

An online diagnosis won’t replace an actual visit to your doctor. But before setting up that appointment, Googling the pain in your knee may save you time, expense, and a lot worry. The information you find may make the difference between thinking the possible (knee cancer!) versus knowing the probable (tendinitis).

Save Money

If you’re enjoying retirement, you likely put more value on money than on your time. Here are just a few of the ways using the Internet can save you money:

  • Comparison shop to save money on big ticket items. You have more buying options online than you would possibly have in your area. This also saves you money in gas, driving around to different stores.
  • Save money on repairs and upgrades. If you are at least curious, you can often find step-by-step instructions for diagnosing all kinds of home and auto repairs. You’re A.C. stopped working? Maybe it’s just replacing the battery in your thermostat, which saves you a service call.
  • Watch movies, documentaries, sports, and TV shows online for a fraction of the cost of cable.
  • Buy gifts online and use the free shipping offered by many retailers, saving you money in postage and gas.
  • Online banking, including bill pay can save you money on stamps and late fees. Plus, you’ll be saving a tree or at least a bush.
  • Use coupons sites to save money on groceries.
  • Use travel sites to find the best deals on airfare, hotels, car rental and tour packages.
  • Read books online at no cost using your library and other free services.
  • Buy prescription drugs cheaper online and have them delivered.

How Much Does Internet Service Cost?

The cost of the internet ranges widely on your area. Most areas will have at least two providers. That creates competition that allows for seniors to find a better price from one or the other. Low-end users who need just limited access can find policies that cost under $30 a month. Some other options may be less. The key here is to know that most providers offer discounted plans tailor designed to meet the basic needs of seniors. These tend to be available from all providers and can drastically reduce the overall cost. Wrapping the cost of internet into cable and phone service can further reduce the costs of all of these services.

The average cost of high speed Internet is $42 a month. This could be cost prohibitive for some low-income seniors. If this is you, consider a trade-off. For example, if you have cable TV, consider getting rid of it and using the cheaper alternatives that the Internet provides such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Another option is to split the cost of service with a neighbor, especially if you live in an apartment complex where a wireless signal is strong. Even if you live in a house, your neighbor’s signal will likely reach you.

Also, think of the Internet as more than just a technical connection. Think of it as a portal to endless education and entertainment. You can:

  • Read newspapers
  • Participate in book discussions
  • Personal banking
  • Monitor investments
  • Watch the news, sports, movies, etc.
  • Read e-books
  • Learn how to repair just about anything
  • Learn about your health
  • Order goods and services
  • Have groceries delivered to your door
  • Make dinner reservations
  • Buy movie tickets
  • Refill prescriptions
  • Have doctors monitor your health
  • Talk to friends and family over video
  • Identify bird calls

Are There Free or Affordable Internet Options for Fixed Income Seniors?

Many local cable and phone providers offer low-cost internet services to seniors. Some free services may also be available. It’s always beneficial for individuals to call providers to inquire about discounts and free offers.

Lifeline is a program offered through the FCC that offers a significant discount on wireless and wireline services. It is available to those who are on Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Supplemental Security Income.

Free Ways To Communicate with Internet Service

  • Email: Set up a free account with a webmail service such as Yahoo!, Outlook (formerly Hotmail) or Gmail. You’ll immediately be able to email friends and family in addition to receiving plenty of unwanted junk mail aka spam.
  • Skype: Do you Skype? Yes, Skype has made into the Oxford Dictionary as a verb. About 600 million people are registered users of the video and instant messaging service. And why not. It’s free. You can connect on video (or instant messaging) with anyone else who also uses Skype. This makes seeing and hearing kids, grandkids, and friends easy.
  • Facebook: Keep up with friends, kids, and grandkids with the gold standard in online social networking. You can share photos, send messages, chat instantly, get news feeds and basically be a voyeur into the lives of people you know.
  • Texting: Sending short electronic messages from your phone is not simply the communication domain of teenage girls. Texting is a quick, useful way to communicate any number of messages from “What did I need to pick up for dinner?” to “Love you, be home at 3:30,” to “We’re enjoying a beautiful day at the beach (with attached picture). You?” Working, Mom.

Who Are Some Providers That Offer Internet Service for Seniors?

Some providers have specific plans designed to meet the needs of seniors and keep costs down. Consider the following service providers who may offer senior plans or discount offers.

  • Access from AT&T
  • CableOne
  • Comcast
  • COX
  • Eagle Communications
  • Google Fiber
  • Human-IT
  • Mediacom
  • Spectrum
  • PCs for People
  • Internet Essentials

How Can I Find Internet Service for Seniors?

To find options, make your first step calling your existing cable or phone service. Inquire about the availability of internet in your home. And, then, ask for senior discounts and rates. Even if they initially tell you that they do not offer discounts for seniors, ask about fixed income and low-income options through specialized programs.

You can also contact local senior groups and associations in your area. You will find that there is a strong presence of local government getting involved to help ensure all homes have internet connectivity.

Internet Devices for Seniors

How you get online depends on you. What are your needs? Something portable? Inexpensive? Easy-to-read? Large screen? DVD player? Your options are many so you should be able to find just the right device. And you may find you want more than one.

Let’s look at some examples:

Tablet PCs

For as little as $69, you can score one of these super-compact, portable devices that are about the size of a National Geographic, yet allow you to read email, surf the web, read e-books, play games, watch videos, and listen to music among other functions.

  • Pros: Use them anywhere: in bed, at the coffee shop, on the plane, by the pool. Touch-screens allow you to easily change the size of the font, type on-screen, and scroll through web pages with a finger flick. Keeping in touch with family and friends easily via email, instant messaging, and video. Good battery life.
  • Cons: Storage capacity is usually limited and they don’t have the functionality of a laptop or desktop. Some don’t come with USB port to allow for transferring files or plugging in devices such as cameras.
  • Price: Start at about $69 and go up to over $700 for an iPad with retina display.

Netbook

These mini-laptops are more feature rich than tablet PCs, but they are also not as compact. The usually come in screen sizes of 8″ or 10″ and weigh just a few pounds.

  • Pros: Netbooks have full Microsoft operating systems that allow you perform the same operations as you would on laptop or desktop. Relatively small and lightweight. Decent storage capacity for pictures, music, e-books, etc. Inexpensive compared to laptops.
  • Cons: Small keyboard may be tough to type on. Smaller screen may be hard to view for some. No CD or DVD drive.
  • Price: Netbooks start at around $200.

Laptop

These offer a nice compromise between the non-portable desktop and the smaller, less functional netbook or tablet. Most of what you can do on a desktop you can do on a laptop. Screen sizes range from 13″ to 20″.

  • Pros: Versatile and portable. Surf and watch movies in bed. Take just about anywhere though some can get a little heavy depending on the size.
  • Cons: Not as portable and lightweight as a tablet or netbook. Screen size not as big as desktop options. Can be expensive depending on brand and features.
  • Price: Laptops start at around $220.

Desktop

Desktops used to take up a lot of space with their big, clunky monitors and CPU towers. Not anymore. You can by an all-in-one where everything—monitor, hard drive, CD/DVD and all other components—are neatly tucked into one unit. So it’s just the monitor, keyboard and mouse sitting on your desk.

  • Pros: Take up minimal desk space compared to traditional desktops. Large, easy-to-read monitors—usually 23″. Regular keyboards are easy to type on. Fast processors, lots of space for pictures, music and e-books. A good way to watch movies and DVDs.
  • Cons: Not portable. Considerably more expensive than other options.
  • Price: All-in-one desktops start at around $550.

Smart Phone

Not the best way to surf the Net because of their size, but certainly an option.

  • Pros: Small and very portable. Can pull double duty as your phone and Internet device. Handy apps, navigation, games, banking, etc. With some cell plans, you can connect another device (laptop, tablet, etc.) to the Internet using your phone’s signal. This would negate the need for separate Internet service. Read more about phone options here.
  • Cons: Small size screen. Small keyboard making it difficult to type. Less storage space. Less functionality.
  • Price: If you sign a contract with some cell phone companies, you may be able to receive a free smart phone. Otherwise, they start at around $60.

E-Book

These devices are similar in size to tablets and are primarily designed to display e-books from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other e-book sources. Most can also connect to the Internet allowing email, surfing, movie watching and more.

  • Pros: Screens designed to be viewed in a variety of light conditions from dark rooms to the bright outdoors. Ability to enlarge the font. Portability. Carry an entire library on one device. E-books are cheaper than regular books. USB ports allow other devices.
  • Cons: Screens aren’t as crisp as iPad and other tablets.
  • Price: Kindle Fire (Amazon) is $159. Nook HD (B&N) is $150.

Just because you use the Internet doesn’t mean you also have to carry a smart phone, text, Skype or Tweet. You may find email is the only way you like to communicate. Maybe it’s through Facebook. Or maybe a combination.

Some people are “texters” and some couldn’t be bothered. You quickly learn who in your life uses what.

With so many free applications, it’s easy to give something a try and drop it if you’re not comfortable with it.

Staying Safe Online

Seniors can be particularly vulnerable online for several reasons. They are generally—though not always—more trusting. Unless they’ve been “connected” online for years, they are less likely to be familiar with all of the online scams out there. And seniors may not be as up-to-date with security software for their computers, leaving them more prone to attack from viruses and the like.

Knowing all this, criminals do target older adults. And knowing this, if you exercise some common sense, you’ll be just find online. Here are a few basic tips to remember:

  • Never respond to email or other online requests for personal or financial information, even if the email looks “official” and even though it may look like an email from an institution you do business with. These are phishing scams.
  • Don’t click on links within emails from someone you don’t know.
  • Don’t open attachments from email addresses you don’t know. They could contain viruses.
  • Don’t fall for the classic Nigerian email scam that goes something like this: “My wife and I won the Euro Millions Lottery and decided to donate 1.5 million British pounds to 4 individuals as part of our own charity.” They go on to ask you for banking and personal information if you take the bait.
  • If you’re ever in doubt about the legitimacy of an email, do a quick Google search. You’re likely not the first person to run across the “offer.”
  • Lastly, remember the golden rule: if it sounds too good to be true, it is….

For even more tips on how to avoid being bamboozled, visit the FBI’s Internet Fraud page.

Internet Usage in Moderation

To be sure, there is garbage online. It takes some effort to wade through it all depending on what you’re looking for. And spending time on the Internet can take time away from real person-to-person socialization and other daily routines if you let it.

Anything done in excess is usually not good for you. Just don’t let your surfing time interrupt your exercise, social calls, and other activities that keep you healthy and sane.

From increase social connections to keeping your mind sharp to saving money, the Internet can change your life for the better.

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