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IRS Direct File Should Ignite Push for Universal Internet Access

For-profit tax preparation software has for some time been stoking demand for a public option that could provide free, government-run electronic filing. The IRS Direct File pilot program may be able to do just that—but its success hinges on overcoming significant obstacles, including broadband access in rural areas, availability of internet-capable devices, and public library staffing and resources.

The Direct File initiative should catalyze broader action around enhancing digital inclusivity and equity. The demand to bridge the digital divide grows more critical by the day. Because successful implementation of Direct File depends on widespread and equitable broadband access, there’s a pressing need for increased funding and innovative solutions.

Potential paths forward include viable short-term alternatives to widespread broadband. These include subsidized satellite internet and patch-over efforts such as bolstering public library capabilities and funding. Libraries can serve as access points for digital tax services, and as vital centers for tax assistance through an expanded vision of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

Broadband Access

Access to broadband across the US has largely been a story of exponential growth, but differences among demographic and regional groups are noticeable.

While almost 90% of individuals under 50 have broadband access at home, that number drops to around 70% for people 65 and over, according to 2024 Pew Research Center data. The divide is comparable between White and Black households, reflecting a clear age and racial divide.

Further, federal programs that provide broadband connectivity for lower-income households are set to expire in April and run out of funding in May—potentially depriving access to as many as 23 million more households, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

In terms of regional dead zones, many Americans in rural areas and on American Tribal lands lack stable broadband access. When coupled with socioeconomic stratification, a resident of rural affordable housing is especially likely to lack access to at-home broadband.

While high-speed internet access isn’t imperative for accessing the Direct File portal, consistent and stable internet is—and it appears some individuals who would most benefit from a free filing option would have the most difficulty using it.

Given the persistence of broadband access gaps, particularly in rural and Native lands, subsidized satellite internet emerges as a potentially transformative, if temporary, solution. Such access could be a crucial lifeline that offers reliable high-speed internet to underserved communities and ensures equitable access to the expanding array of government services that require an internet connection.

Connected Devices

In 2022 census data, the latest available, nearly 95% of homes had a computer when smartphones were included in the definition. A Pew Research survey found that as of 2023, about 20% of young US adults and 16% of those over 65 relied solely on a smartphone for internet access. It seems fair to say a decent proportion of Americans are relying, in whole or in part, on their smartphones for internet access.

IRS language says Direct File is “mobile-friendly” and will work on a smartphone, but promise and functionality are two very different things. It remains to be seen if smartphone-only households are disadvantaged when it comes to making use of Direct File.

Many video and audio editing tasks can technically be done on a smartphone—but you would be hard-pressed to find a regular user of software in either realm who relies entirely on their phone. Smartphone-only users may need a more robust device with a larger screen to handle their filing obligations.

Librarian Agents

Public libraries play a crucial role in providing internet access to lower-income individuals.

As pillars of community support and outreach, libraries also play a role bridging information gaps—in the realm of tax, by providing tax forms and often hosting tax services. When the two converge, we are likely to see an uptick in tax preparation questions and Direct File assistance requests to librarians.

Using the existing VITA program could significantly enhance Direct File’s reach and effectiveness. The program traditionally provides tax help to individuals who make $64,000 or less, or have a disability, or have limited English-speaking abilities, and it could be expanded to explicitly provide Direct File support and assistance.

Reliance on public libraries and staff can be mitigated by targeted training for VITA volunteers on the vagaries of Direct File, and explicit promotion of VITA for taxpayers with technical issues. Taxpayers using Direct File will have questions, and library staff are left to provide those answers if no one else is around to help.

With an expansion in scope, a comparable expansion is needed in funding and resources for VITA. Direct File may ultimately replace much of the traditional filing procedures handled by VITA volunteers, so investments in Direct File training today will pay dividends tomorrow.

Looking Ahead

As government digital services are rolled out and enhanced, it’s paramount to focus on the core objective: increasing access to essential services. The shift toward online government platforms holds vast potential for simplifying processes and making services more accessible.

That potential is keyed to internet access—making a government service available to anyone who has internet access simply shifts the gatekeeping from the service to the internet.

As more government services are built on the open internet, government must take more care to ensure access to these services so internet isn’t just available but equitably distributed. Those left on the margins shouldn’t be excluded from the digital future.

Andrew Leahey is a tax and technology attorney, principal at Hunter Creek Consulting, and adjunct professor at Drexel Kline School of Law. Follow him on Mastodon at @[email protected]

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