April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Many Low-Income Families “Under-Connected” to Internet, Survey Finds



While more than 90 percent of lower-income families have Internet access, roughly a third of those rely only on mobile devices to stay connected, according to the first nationally representative survey on digital use among this population.

Even those with at-home computers are living “under-connected,” with slow access and older machines shared by too many family members. Families headed by Hispanic immigrants are the least likely to have online access, with 10 percent reporting no access, and about 40 percent saying they have mobile-only access, the survey shows.

Released by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, “Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower-Income Families,” finds that cost is the biggest barrier keeping low- and moderate-income families from subscribing to Internet service or purchasing a home computer. Among those who have home access, many say they can’t afford premium service, and 20 percent reported having their service cut off within the past year because they couldn’t pay the bill.

The results reflect responses from 1,191 parents with children ages six to 13. Additionally, the researchers conducted separate interviews with 170 Hispanic families in Arizona, California, and Colorado. All of the parents contacted had incomes below the national median for families with children.

“Digital inequities”

With students increasingly using the Internet to keep up with homework assignments, to do research for school, and to connect with teachers and classmates, the findings suggest that even with government and public-private initiatives to provide discounted Internet access, “substantial digital inequalities still exist.”

“The quality of families’ Internet connections, and the kinds and capabilities of devices they can access, have considerable consequences for parents and children alike,” wrote authors Victoria Rideout, a consultant and researcher, and Vikki Katz, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

The report comes as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers expanding its Lifelines program, which currently subsidizes phone service for low-income families, to include broadband—a move Rideout said would be a “major public policy change and would affect all lower-income residents.”

In a letter presented to the FCC last fall, almost 200 school superintendents said improving families’ home access will help to eliminate the gap in homework quality and quantity between children without consistent access and those in more well-off families.

“Lifeline support for broadband service, including wireline and wireless services, will create communities of lifelong learners and support systems that can further raise achievement and success throughout the country,” they wrote.

Many phone and Internet service providers (ISPs) currently offer discounted rates for low-income customers—typically about $10 a month—but the report indicates that these programs don’t always reach the families they were meant to serve or don’t provide service that meets families’ needs. Only six percent of those with qualifying incomes said they had ever signed up for such a program. One Colorado parent quoted in the report said she dropped the Internet Essentials program from Comcast after a year because “It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze,” and her children couldn’t get their assignments done.

Katz said companies need to use multiple channels to publicize these programs and to provide service that accommodates how families use the Internet. Two of the programs, for example, offer service for a single device through an Ethernet cord. “That didn’t address the connectivity needs of most families, who have more than one Internet-capable device, many of which are mobile,” she said. Policies such as requiring customers who couldn’t pay their bill to wait three to six months before qualifying for the service again were also a barrier.

In the past, some ISPs have also required families to pay up-front registration or installation fees—another barrier to participation—but many providers have since dropped those requirements, says Chike Aguh, chief programs officer for EveryoneOn, a nonprofit working to close the digital divide by helping families in poverty find low-cost service. EveryoneOn, Aguh says, supports providers that use “autoqualifcation,” meaning, for example, that if a child qualifies for free or reduced-price meals in school, the family will automatically qualify for the discounted service.

Such an approach is being used in ConnectHome, a public, private, and nonprofit effort launched by the Obama administration last year to provide broadband service to families in low-income housing in 28 communities. The program is expected to reach a total of about 275,000 households.

If the FCC does decide to expand Lifelines to include broadband service, Aguh says he would like to see the agency set some minimum requirements for what the subsidy would cover in terms of download speeds or covering multiple devices. “We don’t want the subsidy to be used to buy junk for a family,” he says.

Mobile-only users

The researchers compared the experiences of students with home access to students who use the Internet only on phones or tablets. These users reported being less likely than those with at-home computers to search for information that interests them—35 percent of mobile-only users reported doing this, compared to 52 percent of those with a computer. The researchers found no significant differences between these two groups in using digital devices to complete homework, play educational games, make art or music, write stories or blogs, or connect with teachers or peers.

But some people still sees mobile-only access as an obstacle for students trying to complete their homework, especially as they get older. “You can’t do a paper over your phone,” said Ozzie Serrano, the CEO of Computers for Classrooms, a Chico, CA-based nonprofit that sells refurbished computer systems and laptops, loaded with up-to-date software, to low-income families, starting at $100. The organization also provides computers to other nonprofits, schools, senior citizens, and libraries.

Mobile-only users also face financial constraints in trying to maintain their access. Almost 30 percent said they have hit the data limit on their cell phone plans and nearly a quarter reported having their cell service turned off because they were unable to pay their bill. About 20 percent also reported sharing a mobile device among family members.

Families use of community “access points”

While libraries, schools, and other community “access points” are available to families without at-home computers or laptops, the survey found that very few parents take advantage of these services. They are, however, much more likely to use free Wi-Fi at coffee shops or other public places.

“This finding suggests that some lower-income families are developing strategies to make connectivity as affordable and convenient as possible, purchasing mobile devices but avoiding the cost of a data plan by using Wi-Fi in the places they frequent in the community,” the report said.

Time limits for computer use in libraries could be one reason why some families don’t see these locations as a solution, Serrano suggested. Aguh, however, says that he thinks libraries are “overloaded” and actually can’t meet the demand for use of their computers by students and other patrons who don’t have Internet access.

Even if families are limited to what they can accomplish on public library computers, Serrano says libraries are especially helpful in providing parents with computer training. “When they purchase a system for the first time, the library is able to show them how they work, how to maintain the computer and keep an eye on the kids,” he said.

Providing information on job training or other employment services is another valuable role for libraries, Aguh added.

Not surprisingly, many children in low- and moderate-income families are helping their parents use computers, tablets, and smartphones, the survey found. But the parents are still the ones helping their children “evaluate and interpret” what they find online.

“While children may facilitate their parents’ interactions with digital technologies,” the authors write, “it is important to stress that these activities are often dynamic interactions between parents and children.”


Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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