TECH

For Poor Americans, Getting Online Is About More Than Just Cheap Internet

The government has a plan to offer subsidized Internet access. But experts say that's not enough.

Internet access could soon get a whole lot cheaper for low-income Americans. 

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will consider a proposal that would subsidize broadband Internet for low-income households. If it's adopted, eligible Americans could receive $9.25 a month to help pay for online access. The measure would update the decades-old Lifeline subsidy, which provides discounted phone service for poor Americans.

This could be a boon for the estimated 5 million American families who still lack Internet access. Groups who support the subsidy say it will help reverse inequalities in Internet use. 

But for many poor Americans, getting by in an increasingly digitized world will require more than cheap Internet, experts say.

"There's a whole range of other factors that determine whether you benefit or not from Internet access," Blanca Gordo, a senior researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Huffington Post. 

More than half of low-income Americans with Internet access complain that it's slow, and a quarter say they share a computer with too many other people, according to a recent study

In addition, some people have no computer access at all. For many poor Americans, a cell phone is their only portal to the Internet, according to Laura Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at Santa Clara University. That puts them at a serious disadvantage, she said. 

"Think about typing your resume on a smartphone and trying to get a job with it," Robinson told HuffPost "You can update your linked in page, but can you update your cover letter?"

The FCC this week will consider a proposal for government-subsidized broadband for poor Americans. 
The FCC this week will consider a proposal for government-subsidized broadband for poor Americans. 

People with low incomes also tend to lack experience using the Internet, according to Gordo.

"We take for granted how much time it has taken for us to learn [how to use the Internet]," Gordo explained. "If you entered this system the '90s, you have developed some awareness of how it functions. But if you’re a new entrant, there’s a lot to learn."

Without the knowledge that comes from experience, it's difficult for people to develop the confidence and skills needed to use the Internet effectively, Robinson said.  

Having access without experience is like having car keys but not knowing how to drive, Robinson explained. You might technically be able to get behind the wheel, "but you expend so much emotional energy to operate the vehicle, that you can’t look out the window," she said. 

I cannot believe that in 2016 we’re still wondering if Internet access is a need, when everyday, everywhere you’re required to go online. Blanca Gordo, researcher at UC Berkeley

For Robinson, experience and confidence are more important than the quality of one's Internet connection. 

"If you take someone who is confident [in their ability to use the Internet] and say, 'You have dial-up for the day,' they would say, 'Gee, that sucks,' but they would know how to optimize," Robinson said. 

For someone who hasn't spent much time on the Internet, she said, "they might do just as badly with all of the resources in the world."

Not being able to use the Internet effectively comes with financial and social costs. Products often cost more in stores than online, and a growing number of basic activities, including applying for jobs and signing up for government services, require people to use the Internet, according to Gordo. 

"I cannot believe that in 2016 we’re still wondering if Internet access is a need, when everyday, everywhere you’re required to go online," Gordo said. 

The government's proposed broadband subsidy is a necessary step toward greater digital equality, Gordo added. "But this should have happened long ago."

Robinson agrees. The stakes are high, she said. "For poor families, it's still 'We can’t eat if we’re paying for Internet.'" 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the FCC's proposal would allow low-income people to pay $9.25 a month for Internet access. In fact, the program would give $9.25 to help cover the cost of access. 

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