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Blacks lag in accessing high-speed internet

By Jazelle Hunt/NNPA Washington Correspondent
On May 18, 2015

Free community-based computer classes are often underfunded small-scale operations, which contributes to the digital divide. 

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As education, jobs, and the national and global economy go digital, people without broadband (high-speed Internet) access risk being left behind. This disparity in who’s online and who isn’t is often called the digital divide – and Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be in the latter group.

But people access the Internet in different ways. Black people are more likely than their White counterparts to own a smartphone and use it for Internet access. At the same time, 12 percent of Black people are smartphone dependent – they have few or no other options for accessing the Internet at any given time. This is compared to 4 percent of Whites and the 7 percent national rate.

“Even though low-income households are over-indexing on smartphone use, I don’t think that’s how you want to type a paper, do your research, do your homework, apply for jobs, or apply for scholarships,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner, speaking at a Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council (MMTC) event.

The divide can also be traced to educational outcomes, from elementary school up to college. It’s a problem known as the “homework gap.” In an effort to prepare kids for a digital world and workforce, teachers and schools are increasingly assigning homework that requires Internet access to complete – 7 in 10 teachers do, according to Pew figures. But many students, particularly students of color from migrant/immigrant or low-income families, do not have broadband access or any device at home.

“We have 29 million households in the country with school-age children. Of that, 5 million do not have broadband at home,” said John Horrigan, senior researcher on the Internet and technology at Pew Research Center. “And within that 5 million, African-American households and Hispanic households are disproportionately represented.”

While students face the homework gap, job seekers who aren’t as comfortable using computers can face difficulty in securing a career and building wealth. As more industries require some level of computer literacy, and as jobs without these requirements become scarcer, it will become harder to earn a living wage without these skills.

“Our economic future depends on [getting people online],” Rosenworcel said. “Already, 50 percent of the jobs that are in the economy today require some level of digital skills. By the end of the decade, that number is 77 percent.”

According to a survey report from Project GOAL (Get Older Americans Online), 70 percent of Americans who aren’t online say they simply have no interest. Those who are interested primarily want to get news or information or use e-mail, and not much else.

“Trying to figure out what the value is in going online is still an issue for the older adult communities,” said Debra Berlyn, executive director of Project GOAL. “Then within that community there’s a huge difference between a 65-year-old and an 85-year-old in terms of how they may value going online. So those huge discrepancies mean that you have to show the value a bit differently.”

Over the past few decades there have been many attempts to close these digital divides. The federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, for example, supports the establishment of better broadband infrastructure and public computer centers. The FCC’s E-rate program seeks to connect the nation’s classrooms and school libraries to the Internet. Another FCC program, Lifeline, which originally offered landlines for low-income families, is exploring a modernization to include broadband Internet.

But these programs are generally underfunded, not well-known, deprioritized when funds are allocated, or unable to evolve fast enough. Experts believe that getting everyone online will require prioritizing the Lifeline modernization, as well as creating an effective, inclusive plan to reach the people who need it most. Experts also believe that public-private partnerships will be key.

“One big takeaway is that these communities need to be heard,” said Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president and chief research and policy officer for the MMTC. “Because what basically happens is once policy is created, in terms of cultural sensitivity, they’re not matched up to reality. So we end up … back here five years from now, still saying that broadband has not touched or changed the lives of individuals.”

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