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The Digital Divide Is About Much More Than Access

A new survey of low- and moderate-income families shows that 94 percent of them have Internet access, but many say it's slow and unreliable.
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(Photo: goblinbox/Flickr)

(Photo: goblinbox/Flickr)

If you look at the numbers, it doesn't seem like America has much of a digital divide anymore. Yes, that Pew study from last year states that 15 percent of Americans don't use the Internet, but if you dip into the researchers' methodology a bit—they've crunched numbers from surveys over the past 15 years—it's extremely likely that the actual percentage of non-Internet users is much lower. How much? A new survey of low- and moderate-income families shows that 94 percent of them have Internet access. If that's somewhat indicative of how many Americans truly have access to the Internet, it seems like we're doing reasonably well in closing the gap.

Except, well, the divide hasn't actually closed. The pace and necessity of Internet-based technology has simply created other inequities.

The first half of the White House's July 2015 report ("Mapping the Digital Divide") examines the numbers in terms of American households with "Internet access." The survey question used to collect the data was: "At this house, apartment, or mobile home—do you or any member of this household access the Internet?” A simple enough question, with a simple enough set of answers. But the high numbers of "yes" responses hint at the question's near irrelevance at this point. We shouldn't be talking about the "digital divide" anymore in terms of whether or not one has Internet access. The question we need to consider is the quality of that access.


Dig deeper into the survey data, and you can see the problem with those accessibility numbers. Of the 94 percent of families that "have" Internet access, 52 percent of them report having slow Internet, 26 percent complain about having to share a computer with too many people in their household, 20 percent say their Internet has been shut off over the past year due to lack of payment, and eight percent are still using dial-up. Not all Internet is created equal.

The survey is the work of Vikki Katz, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers, and Victoria Rideout, a media and policy expert. It partially came out of Katz's desire to understand how low-income and immigrant families were using the various state- and national-level digital equality initiatives that have been rolled out over the past years.

"Being able to go online is becoming an increasing resource to foster a love of learning through their own interests.""

"The presumption is always, if you're giving people a discount on something that's good for them, they'll take it and use it like you thought they would," Katz says. "That always makes me suspicious."

The project began with Katz and her team of undergraduates and post-doctoral researchers conducting interviews about Internet usage with 170 families across three school districts—one each in California, Arizona, and Colorado. Each area had high rates of poverty and Mexican heritage. The interviews were open-ended and conducted in the subjects' preferred language. Using data from those interviews, the team created survey questions that were answered by 1,191 parents with school-age children (between the ages of six and 13) who earn below the median average income for families with children ($65,000 a year). All these qualities make it an extraordinarily unique data set.* 

"We have a lot of data on lower income adults who don't have children," Katz says. "But not multi-generational families who have to make decisions on their connectivity." The broad finding is not that these families don't have access—as described above, 94 percent of them do. But that they're under-connected.

First, it's an issue of slow speeds. The infrastructure that allows the roll-out of subsidized broadband isn't that great. In fact, the lines get jammed up so often—often leaving users with nearly unusable speeds—that many of them simply ignore the programs altogether. "Of families that would be financially eligible for these kinds of programs, only six percent signed up," Katz says.

Secondly, there's a significant hardware access problem. The families often have older computers that don't have the same upload/download speeds as those with incomes above the median. Or, they're forced into a situation where they only have a single computer shared by the entire family. With those barriers in place, their only real Internet access point is their phones, a track that's full of its own land mines.

"For instance, you hit your data cap," Katz says. "Or, you're not able to pay your bill every month, so you have intermittent connectivity." Plus, there's the rotten aesthetic experience of scrolling through a tiny screen and typing on a fake keyboard with your thumbs. That's fine if you're reading news or liking someone's Facebook posts, sure. But if a task calls for time and focus—like, say, filling out a job application—it's almost necessary to sit down at a desk and use an actual computer.

Slow speeds and access barriers create a number of basic logistical issues. They make it difficult to complete school work at home; to find free or cheap child-friendly activities in the neighborhood; and to snag various online-only coupons that might save the family some extra cash. But they also limit parents' ability to fan the flames of childhood curiosity.

While most surveyed families could find the proper time and accessibility when their children needed to complete schoolwork or participate in educational activities on the Internet, there was a dramatic gap when kids wanted to look up something on their own, when they were interested in something outside the lesson plan. Children with mobile-only access are almost 20 percent less likely to look up information online about things they are interested in than those with access at home (35 percent vs. 52 percent with home access). That's a huge difference.*

"Think about the last time you got really excited about something," Katz says. "That particular historical figure, how paint is made, anything. When you have a question and something you're interested in, what do you do to sate your curiosity?" Maybe you read a book, watch a documentary, or go to a museum exhibit, sure. But the very first thing you do—the activity that deepens your desire to learn more about the subject—is log on to your consistent and reliable Internet connection to gather some basic facts. "Being able to go online is becoming an increasing resource to foster a love of learning through their own interests."

The solution to America's digital gap lies in changing its central focus. It's no longer about getting people connected, it's about getting people up to speed. "A national level blanket policy change is a start, but not sufficient," Katz says. "Policy conversations have to be had at multiple levels. We're hoping [the survey] will affect public discourse and make digital inequality part of the broader conversation."


*Update — March 9, 2016: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the people who conducted the interviews and the percentage differences in "interest-driven learning" among children with mobile-only access.