Closing the Digital Divide

 

by Ana Montes–

 

Access to the Internet has become today’s new civil rights issue for low-income communities, especially communities of color.   That’s why TURN is a strong supporter of FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s proposal to expand the Lifeline program to include broadband Internet connections.

Communications and information services are essential tools for everyday living and are as important as access to energy and water. Without universal services programs like Lifeline phone service, people who are low-income and come from the most vulnerable populations would be unable to access important services like 911 emergency assistance, health information, education, access to medical care, their children’s schools or the crucial support of families and friends.

Although the Internet is increasingly the place where Californians need to go for essential services and information, and to communicate with others, the digital divide has grown. We need to close the gap by making broadband affordable, reliable and accessible to all so that everyone can participate in today’s society. That means expanding universal services in order to promote digital inclusion and avoid digital exclusion for those who cannot afford it.

Not having affordable and effective Internet access means many opportunities remain out of reach for Latinos and other low-income communities. Only fifty-two percent of all Latino households have broadband, which means that nearly 1 in every 2 Latino children do not have access to the internet at home. 

While many low-income Californians use their smartphones to access the Internet, that access is limited, can be very slow and expensive, and may only be available where there is free wifi.  That isn’t the kind of Internet access schoolchildren or job hunters need, and it isn’t an affordable way to get connected. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 44% of low-income smartphone owners have had to cancel or suspend their service due to financial constraints. And for those whose only access to the Internet is their smartphone, 48% have had to cancel or shut off their cell phone for a period of time, because the cost of maintaining the service was a financial hardship.

Latinos are twice as likely as whites to have canceled or cut off their smartphone service, especially younger smartphone users, and 48% of Latinos frequently reach the maximum amount of data they are allowed to use on their plans.  Finally 13% of Latinos are smartphone-dependent, compared with just 4% of whites.

Expanding Universal Services to include Broadband access is an important step towards digital inclusion.   It will ensure that all communities, especially the most vulnerable will have access to affordable, reliable and high speed internet access so that they can access jobs, information, education, improve their quality of life and be able to participate in today’s society.