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Without Internet, Urban Poor Fear Being Left Behind In Digital Age

Posted:   |  Updated: 03/01/2012 10:55 pm EST

Jillian Maldonado is a 29-year-old student at the Mid-Manhattan Adult Learning Center and an Avon sales representative who earns $300 a week. On most nights, she takes the D train from her classes in Manhattan back to her third-floor apartment in the South Bronx. It's a tough neighborhood. A few months ago she heard gunshots outside her window.

Once home, Maldonado cooks dinner. She cleans up. She helps her 9-year-old son, Nelson, with his homework. Then the single mother and her son bundle up and walk three blocks -- past a check-cashing store, a small supermarket and the occasional drug dealer on the corner -- to their local library.

A year ago, Maldonado's computer stopped working and she cannot afford a new one. So almost every day she borrows one of the library's laptops and sits down at a desk, rushing to submit customers’ orders online or research and write papers for her medical billing class before the library closes.

When she returns to her apartment, she rummages through her purse and places whatever money she can spare in a jar half-filled with coins and crumpled dollars. She's saving to buy a laptop -- and grasping for a lifeline in the digital age.

“My teacher assumes everyone has Internet at home,” she said. “I feel like I’m being left behind.”

Maldonado is not alone. She is one of an estimated 100 million Americans who have no way of accessing the Internet at home. She and others are on the wrong side of the so-called “digital divide” -- the chasm between those who are connected to technology and those who are not. Some live in remote areas where broadband service doesn’t exist. Many live in blighted urban neighborhoods, unable to afford a computer, let alone Internet service. In the Bronx, for example, where the median household income is about $34,000, less than 40 percent of residents have broadband access at home -- the lowest of the five boroughs, according to a 2008 report for the New York City Council.

But being disconnected isn’t just a function of being poor. These days, it is also a reason some people stay poor. As the Internet has become an essential platform for job-hunting and furthering education, those without access are finding the basic tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach.

"The cost of being offline is greater now than it was 10 years ago," said John Horrigan, vice president of policy research at TechNet, a trade association representing high-tech companies. "So many important transactions take place online. If you don’t have access to high-speed Internet, you're missing out on a lot."

About 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies -- including Target and Walmart -- only accept job applications online. High school students who have broadband Internet at home have graduation rates 6 to 8 percentage points higher than students who don’t, says a 2008 study by the Federal Reserve. Consumers can save almost $8,000 a year by using online resources to find discounts on essentials like apartment rentals, clothes, gasoline and food, according to an analysis last fall by the Internet Innovation Alliance.

Nationwide, 40 percent of households with annual incomes below $20,000 (below the poverty line for a family of four) have broadband access at home, while 93 percent of households with incomes exceeding $75,000 have high-speed Internet, according to a 2010 Federal Communications Commission survey.


The survey found that cost was the most-cited factor as to why people didn't adopt the Internet at home. Many experts say a lack of competition among Internet providers keeps prices high and is a big reason why many low-income Americans cannot afford service.

The Obama administration set aside $7.2 billion from the stimulus package to bring high-speed Internet to underserved areas. The money has allowed companies to install or upgrade 18,000 miles of new broadband networks, add or upgrade more than 16,000 computer workstations, and create more than 110,000 new subscribers in both urban and rural low-income areas, according to the Commerce Department.

Other measures are also underway to help bridge the divide. The Federal Communications Commission plans to overhaul its Lifeline program to provide discounted Internet service to families in need, and has partnered with major cable providers to supply $10 Internet access to households with a child enrolled in the national school lunch program.

FEWER OPTIONS, HIGHER PRICES

Yet such efforts do not address the underlying policies that make high-speed Internet unaffordable to the poorest Americans, experts say. Under the Bush administration, the FCC decided that cable companies should be exempt from federal regulations that forced them to lease their lines to their rivals, saying the requirements would have curbed their incentives to invest in their networks.

Many experts, however, say building a broadband network is so expensive that without such regulations new players can't compete, leaving consumers to choose largely between two Internet providers: the cable company and the telephone company. Without more options, there is nothing to push down Internet prices, according to S. Derek Turner, research director of the public interest group Free Press.

"If we had competition, that consumer in the Bronx wouldn't have to pay $40 a month for basic Internet service,” Turner said. “They'd be paying $15 or $20 a month."

Other countries that require companies to lease access to their rivals often have lower Internet prices, according to a study by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In Sweden, customers pay $19 a month for broadband Internet of 1 megabit-per-second, while American consumers pay $35 a month for the same speed, the New America Foundation found.

Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, insisted that "competition is very strong" among Internet service providers because cable companies are competing against satellite Internet providers and telephone companies for customers. "There isn't an industry that has done more to bring broadband to all of the United States than the cable industry," Dietz said.

But the cost of high-speed Internet is inching higher. In 2010, the average monthly broadband bill was $40. That’s up from $34.50 in May 2008, according to surveys conducted by the FCC and Pew Research Center.

For Maldonado, such prices are out of reach, and her lack of online access at home is taking its toll. She needs the Internet to research doctors who accept her insurance and to look up confusing medical terms for her class. She can’t check email regularly to keep in touch with family or reply to other job opportunities. She spends extra time in the computer lab at school, jotting down notes from the Internet to study later because she doesn’t have access to a printer. Her son also needs to get online to finish homework assignments.

Maldonado has even started bartering her services for Internet access, doing her friend’s hair and nails in exchange for using the woman’s laptop and Wi-Fi connection.

“It’s just so exhausting because I use the Internet all the time,” she said. “I’m always back and forth to the library. Some days, I feel completely defeated.”

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