The good news: Nine in ten low- and moderate-income families have an Internet connection, according to a new report.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop has published “Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower-Income Families,” which documents the state of connectivity among low-income American families with children 6-13 to understand how a family’s connectivity affects children in school.
The bad news: Of those who do have an Internet connection, a quarter of families below the median American income of $53,046 rely on mobile-only access. Half of those with home access say their connections are too slow for useful work. One in five families with Internet access says their connection has been cut off in the past year because of a failure to pay. They're "under-connected."
The researchers categorized low-income families into three brackets of connectivity: no access, mobile or table-only access and home access. The last indicated that a family had an Internet-connected desktop or laptop.
The authors of the study are Vicki Rideout, President of VJR Consulting, and Vikki Katz, Ph. D., an Associate Professor of Communications at Rutgers University and a Senior Researcher at the Cooney Center. Rideout was the driving force behind the national survey, and Katz had previously conducted qualitative research on how Hispanic families use the Internet, making them a natural pair for this survey.
Mobile-only access, despite giving the impression of a smartphone-toting family, is not enough, according to Rideout.
“Mobile technology has helped bridge the digital divide,” she said. “It’s a rickety bridge, though. Kids who are using digital tools for homework can’t rely only on mobile." Rideout said, “If you’re trying to research and write a term paper, your mom’s smartphone is not enough.” Her research backs her up: Children of families with mobile-only access reported being almost 20 percent less likely to pursue their interests or express themselves creatively online.
Among low-income families, Hispanic immigrant families were even less likely to have access to the Internet. Families with home Internet access reported using a whole host of services online, especially children doing their homework. Families without home access or with mobile-only access self-reported as being less likely to pursue online services across the board.
The main reason families do not have home computers or Internet access is insufficient income. Internet can be expensive, and discounted Internet programs are reaching very few.
Four in ten families without a computer or Internet access said they could not afford to purchase either. Though income was the main factor barring families from connectivity, only six percent of families at or below the threshold for discounted programs had signed up for them.
The barriers to enrolling in discounted programs are not insignificant either. Parents must wait for schools to verify that their children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which requires administrative verification. Families must not have and have never had overdue bills with the Internet service provider, a rule that Katz says, “is not responding to the realities of low-income life. These families will have gone into debt.” Twenty-nine percent of surveyed families living in poverty reported having their service disconnected at some point due to failure to pay. One parent in the report chose her Internet bill over having money to celebrate her son’s birthday.
In the most Kafka-esque of the requirements, families must qualify as new customers with the Internet service provider (ISP). To enroll in Cox’s Connect2Compete, a low-cost Internet initiative, families must have not subscribed to an Internet provider in the past 90 days.
To top it off, the connection provided by these programs is often sluggish and intermittent. In the report, one family said of Comcast’s Internet Essentials, “It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. I was paying $10 a month to not use it.”
Students not only need the Internet, they love it. Some too much, as one school found out. The Bronx High School of Science in New York City banned cell phones from its wifi network. Students’ mobile activities weighed down the network so heavily that teachers were having trouble with using the net for instruction.
But too much connectivity is not the norm. Communities and districts across America lack basic Internet connections. According to nonprofit EducationSuperHighway’s "State of the States" report, 23 percent of American school districts don’t meet the 100 kbps standards. Those districts contain 21 million students. What can be done?
Katz wants policymakers “to understand the particular challenges these families face and craft locally tailored solutions. We need to meet them where they are.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently considering revising its Lifeline policy, which mandates that phone companies provide discounted phone service, to also provide discounted broadband services that meet certain speed requirements. Some companies already do, but the programs are far from being available nationwide. Katz and Rideout hope their research will inform the FCC’s decision.
Darryl Adams, Superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, follows Katz’s "Meet families where they are" recommendation literally: He sends his school buses equipped with wifi routers to students’ neighborhoods. On any given night, up to 10 of his buses will zoom out into the night and broadcast five gigabyte links signals while parked overnight.
Coachella Valley is a 1,250-square-mile district comprised of 20,000 students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches but also all have iPads in military-grade cases. There is a large migrant population. Many students live in trailer parks, which is exactly where Adams sends his buses.
“Connectivity should not stop at the school door...We want to move our students into the category of ‘haves’ from ‘have nots’ with our technology initiatives,” Adams said.
The initiative has become a success for the community as well. Parents use their children’s iPads to communicate with teachers through the district’s wifi.
He also uses hotspots for students in very rural areas. Any student can check out one of 200 Verizon mobile wifi transmitters to bring home.
Adams said his next goal is for Coachella Valley Unified to become its own Internet company, a direct provider. He said the FCC has already approved his plan.
Katz is a big fan of Adams’s work: “The buses are more than connectivity,” she said. “They signal that schools are making kids active partners in learning.”