Today in the United States, 9 out of 10 lower-income families have some form of internet access. But when it comes to how well they are getting online, new data exposes nagging imbalances in speed and quality.
A new report from Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center finds that many low- and moderate-income families are “under-connected.” This may mean, for example, that they can access the internet only on their smartphones, that their connectivity is unreliable, or that other factors make it harder for them to carry out basic online activities while impeding their children’s performance in school.
“It’s no longer a simple question of whether or not families are connected to the Internet,” the study’s co-author, Vikki S. Katz, associate professor of communication at Rutgers, said in a press release, “but rather how they are connected, and the implications of being under-connected for children’s access to educational opportunities and parents’ ability to apply for jobs or resources.”
The study interviewed 1,191 lower-income parents with children ages 6 to 13 and conducted 170 in-person interviews with lower-income Hispanic families. Researchers found a quarter of families below the median income level relied solely on mobile internet access—meaning they are able to connect via smartphone but do not have a computer. For those with both a computer and an internet connection, half said their access was too slow, a quarter said too many people share the computer to have reliable access, and one in five said their internet service was cut off once in the last year due to late payment.
For kids, an unreliable internet connection means a harder time completing homework and less opportunity to research their interests. A poor connection makes it harder, for example, for children and teens to pursue personal online projects or create websites and videos, which are vital to developing skills for future jobs. Just 35 percent of children with mobile-only access said they often looked up information about things they’re interested in online, compared to more than half those with home access.
The researchers found 40 percent of families lack computers or internet access because they cannot afford it. There are a number of discounted internet services, the largest being Comcast’s Internet Essentials, which offers $10-a-month service to families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at public schools. (The FCC required Comcast to create the service as a condition of acquiring NBC in 2011 for $6.4 billion.)
But only 5 percent of people interviewed in the study have tried to enroll in a discounted internet service, and one in four reported being dissatisfied with the service because connection speeds were lower than for customers paying full prices. Comcast recently upped the Internet Essentials speed to a rate somewhat closer to the average American’s connection speed, but lower-income families say their options are still lacking.
In the coming months, the FCC plans to vote on reforming its Lifeline program, which started in 1985 as a subsidy to help low-income Americans pay for phone lines. The FCC updated it in 2015 to include subsidies for cellphone bills, but the upcoming vote will determine whether the program will add subsidized broadband internet service.
To push for that reform and other policy actions, the Media Action Grassroots Network, or MAG-Net, and other civil rights groups organized a Twitter town hall two weeks ago called #RightToConnect. Hundreds posted about how lower-cost internet would help in their lives or at school.
— Mignon Clyburn (@MClyburnFCC) January 21, 2016
One problem, of course, was in hosting the discussion online. So during the conversation, MAG-Net tweeted recorded stories from people who lack solid internet connections and were unable to take part in the Twitter conversation. They also have a story bank to showcase how people would be impacted by changes to the Lifeline program.
“Not having internet service at my home is challenging for me and my family because I have to leave the house to use the internet somewhere else,” Roxanne O’Brien said in her interview with MAG-Net. “I have three children, and sometimes I have to leave them here by themselves, especially when I have to look for housing, because the service on my phone isn’t always reliable.”
As the Rutgers report makes plain, lower-income families struggling to get quality internet connections “too often go unnoticed as we celebrate the new progress and promise afforded by new technologies.”