Seeking solutions for 60 million Americans who lack home Internet

After the library has closed and most students have gone, Bridgid Skiba lingers, finishing her homework with the wireless Internet still leaking through the building’s shuttered doors.

It’s one of several creative solutions Skiba, a student at City College of San Francisco, has devised to finish assignments in spite of her limited access to the Web. She leans heavily on her smartphone for research or spends hours on the campus and in libraries around the city.

Skiba is one of an estimated 60 million Americans who lack Internet access at home. On Thursday, she participated in a Twitter town hall — an organized online conversation about a singular topic that united comments from people around the country under the hashtag #RightToConnect.

She told participants how her grades suffer when she can’t complete her assignments or participate in required online discussions with her teachers and classmates.

“It was (an) enlightening experience the
first time I went online,” Skiba tweeted. “It was as if I had finally caught up to the world.”

More Americans than ever rely solely on their phones for online access, according to the Pew Research Center. But being smartphone reliant poses many challenges. People who connect to the Internet using only their phones are more likely than others to hit data caps that, in turn, limit how much they can do online, or the added charges could make the phones prohibitively expensive, according to Pew. Of those who do not have broadband Internet service at home, nearly half cited cost as a reason, and most are people of color or from low-income households.

Nearly half the students surveyed recently by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation were unable to complete a homework assignment because they lacked Internet access.

“In research and policy, you often hear the phrase ‘willingness to pay,’ like what would people be willing to pay for Internet access,” said Colin Rhinesmith, an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma who has done significant research on the digital divide. “But it’s not about a willingness to pay, it’s an ability to pay. For a lot of people in this country, the choice really is between Internet and food for the week.”

FCC vote

Amid mounting pressure from politicians and activists, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote as soon as next month to update a program designed to provide low-cost access to phones for people who qualify.

A $1.6 billion government program known as Lifeline, established in 1985, provides a monthly subsidy to 13 million eligible families to underwrite phone lines. In 2005, the program expanded to include mobile phones.

In Thursday’s conversation, several activists and government officials called for the expansion of Lifeline to also include broadband Internet service.

Getting connected

Several nonprofit organizations throughout the country help connect those in need with computers, smartphones and Internet service, but when asked what low-income people can do to immediately improve their connectivity, the panel — which consisted of FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Van Jones, president and co- founder of DreamCorps and #YesWeCode — had no immediate answers.

One suggestion, from the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, was to reach out to librarians, local advocacy groups or political representatives.

The Center for Media Justice’s downtown Oakland headquarters was ground zero for this digital discussion — though it was audibly quiet. Gathered around a long wood table in the middle of a windowed room sat three people: spokeswoman Chinyere Tutashinda, standup comic Kamau Bell and Ana Montes, the organizing director of The Utility Reform Network. On a huge screen at the end of the room, Steven Renderos, the center’s senior campaign manager, was seen by video conference from Los Angeles.

Frenetic tapping

Bell, charged with moderating the discussion, launched questions into the ether from his keyboard, announcing every new topic with a celebratory, “Boom!”

But mostly, the room was quiet, punctured by the frenetic tapping of keystrokes.

Skiba was one of five individuals without at-home Internet access who participated in Thursday’s conversation. Organizations hosted the participants at offices in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas and Minnesota to provide access to Twitter.

Internet ‘a right’

“It makes absolutely no sense to me to think of the Internet of being anything but a right in this day and age,” Bell said after the Twitter talk had wrapped. “All of us on the Internet know how important it to us and to our lives whether it’s for just really ridiculous reasons or really key reasons. And I knew that everyone wasn’t on the Internet, but I didn’t realize how serious that is for their day to day lives.”

That, organizers said, was exactly the point of hosting a chat about the digital divide on a digital platform.

“People who use Twitter every day, who can participate in this town hall, really take the Internet for granted,” Tutashinda said. “It’s a great way to bring the stories and experiences of people who don’t have Internet at home to those who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.”