ConnectHome, ConnectEd, & Lifeline Offer Promise of 21st Century Internet Connectivity for Low Income Families
The Obama administration has taken several steps in the past few months to expand high-speed Internet connectivity to more low-income Americans, including many Latinos, who remain on the inauspicious side of the "digital divide."
Last week, the Obama administration announced a new initiative through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (headed by young Latino up-and-comer Julian Castro) to bring high-speed broadband access to over a quarter-million low-income households in the U.S.
Called "ConnectHome," the program will start a pilot phase in 27 cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Antonio, along the Choctaw Tribal Nation in Oklahoma, as we previously reported.
Through partnerships with public and private organizations and businesses -- including Google Fiber, Sprint, Cox Communications, and Best Buy so far -- ConnectHome will not only provide low-cost broadband, but also training, technical support, and some hardware to HUD households that otherwise could not afford to join the growing economic engine that is the modern Internet.
A New Paradigm Arising
ConnectHome is just the latest initiative in an increasingly broad (though piecemeal) set of administration policies and proposals like ConnectEd and the FCC's plan for modernizing LifeLine, built around one proposition:
"Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity," as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler recently put it, according to CNET.
For those who lack access to broadband at home -- including nearly half of all U.S. Latinos -- that simple principle, and the change it's increasingly spurring, could be transformative.
Even though Latino consumers tend to be tech-savvy trendsetters, home broadband adoption has progressed at a slower pace than the national average and both White and African-American households. According to Pew's latest numbers, while 70 percent of U.S. adults have home broadband, only 56 percent of Hispanic families had adopted high-speed connections at home. The White House's more optimistic numbers on all household Internet access nevertheless show that over 33 percent of Latinos are being left behind.
But that disparity could quickly change as ConnectHome and the FCC's revamped LifeLine program -- which will likely expand beyond its original focus on phones to provide basic broadband subsidies for more low-income Americans -- begin rolling out.
The third administration program, ConnectEd, seeks to expand broadband to 99 percent of public schools' libraries and classrooms in the next five years.
The National Hispanic Media Coalition, a Latino advocacy group, lauded the two programs for the potential impact they could have on Latinos.
"Taken together, ConnectHome and Lifeline have the potential to finally make a serious dent in the digital divide," said Michael Scurato, NHMC Policy Director, reacting to Obama and Castro's announcement.
"Both efforts are crucial," continued Scurato, "and, when combined with other actions by the FCC, President Obama and executive branch agencies, indicate the type of new and bold thinking, partnerships and coordination across all levels of governments that are needed to solve the digital divide."
The "Homework Gap"
The primary focus of these programs is getting modern high-speed connections to the next generation of students who are growing up without the tools and knowledgebase of the 21st century web.
For example, ConnectEd, the third new White House Internet program, is focused specifically on expanding broadband to 99 percent of school libraries and classrooms in the next five years. But students can't do all their work at school (as the word "homework" presupposes), and those without home broadband are automatically at a disadvantage.
"While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends," said the White House in a statement last Wednesday. "This 'homework gap' runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education."
Next Steps: The Final Digital Divide
The concept of the "homework gap" brings up one last divide that may remain once low-cost broadband connections become more available through these programs: the "smartphone dependent."
As we previously reported, nearly 20 percent of Americans rely on smartphones for primary high-speed Internet access, with 7 percent using the mobile web on their smartphones with no other alternative.
Pew Research described that set of online Americans as the "smartphone dependent", and found that 13 percent of Latinos in the U.S. fit the description -- the highest percentage among the demographics Pew studied.
While the White House touted 2013 census figures showing 78.5 percent of U.S. households being equipped with a home computer, the "homework gap" will persist in households without one, along with those that only own touchscreen devices and those whose "computers" are so old they barely qualify as one.
And that important, and often-overlooked, aspect of the homework gap -- maybe called the "QWERTY gap" since it centers around the fact that students researching and writing papers on smartphones or tablets are at quite a disadvantage -- will persist, even with 100 percent broadband adoption unless these programs include low-cost computer purchases.
ConnectHome, for all its promise, only details a contribution from Cox Communications to provide 1,500 discounted tablets and another $250,000 from programming site GitHub "to support devices." Nothing in the White House's extensive fact sheet on the program specifically mentions programs to provide low-cost laptop or desktop computers.
Perhaps more is in the works than what's been made public so far. Perhaps not. But in any case, that last gap will have to be addressed sooner or later if the digital divide is to be conclusively and comprehensively bridged.
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