New America Weekly

The Perilous Future of Internet Access for Students of Color

Weekly Article /
July 12, 2018

As teachers increasingly integrate internet-based programs into both lesson plans and homework, the internet has become an essential tool for students. With such vast amounts of information available online—articles, videos, other imaginative mediums—children are able to do homework and develop interests not only with the help of, but also because of an internet connection.

But while that tool can—and does—bring so much opportunity to students whose families can afford it, millions of American families are unable to buy internet at home. Studies, including one by the Department of Education in April, show that black and Hispanic Americans make up a much larger percentage of people without internet than white Americans. And yet, instead of working to bridge this divide, the nation’s top telecommunications regulator—the Federal Communications Commission—has recently threatened to gut Lifeline, the only program in existence that addresses the affordability of communications services. This move threatens to leave millions of Americans, particularly from communities of color, without the opportunities that come with connectivity.

The growing disparity between families that can and can’t afford internet access props up a significant barrier to success in school for children, beginning at an very early age. It’s estimated that 70 percent of teachers nationwide assign homework that requires internet access. Students without internet access at home not only find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to even completing assignments, but they also lack the ability to use the internet to further explore their interests and passions—the sort of entrepreneurial curiosity that may help guide their future career paths.

The Department of Education study from April reveals how this divide becomes even more galling when you look at marginalized communities. The report found that only 53 percent of black children and 52 percent of Hispanic children, aged 3 to 18 years old, have internet access at home, compared to 66 percent of white children. More tellingly, 46 percent of black children and 44 percent of Hispanic children without home internet access reported that it was because it was too expensive—this number falls to 28 percent for white children without access.

These figures come at an important time. The FCC is currently mulling over a proposal to essentially gut the one program it runs that aims to make communications services more affordable: the Lifeline program. It provides a monthly subsidy to low-income Americans who qualify for federal aid programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid for phone and internet service, or who meet other criteria. The program’s roots stretch back to the Reagan administration’s attempt to help low-income Americans afford phone service so that they could to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services. In 2016, the FCC updated Lifeline to include standalone broadband service and phone and internet bundles. It recognized that internet access currently serves as an equally crucial—if not more important—way for Americans to connect to necessary services: health, financial, government, and many others.

Currently, 12.5 million people subscribe to Lifeline, according to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which runs the program for the FCC. The FCC’s proposal would impose deep and devastating cuts—ones that would kneecap Lifeline, including a strict budget cap that would restrict funding and a lifetime benefits cap that would limit the amount of time a household can receive the subsidy. Via the FCC’s proposals, the commission has poised itself to severely hinder Lifeline’s effectiveness at bringing internet and phone access into low-income communities of color.

More specifically, the FCC is seeking to phase out of the program the inclusion of standalone broadband, while also proposing to eliminate requirements that providers participating in Lifeline sell recipients mobile devices that are Wi-Fi and hotspot-enabled. While these changes may seem small, they would hamstring the program’s potential to help bridge the homework gap, given that Lifeline recipients receive only one subsidy per household. Stripped of the ability to receive standalone broadband for the entire household, each member of the home would have to share a single mobile device.

Take a household with one or two caregivers applying for work and in which the children need to do their homework. What takes priority? Without standalone fixed broadband, would the family have enough data to go around for a few days? A month? These needs include not only education for the children, but also employment, healthcare, and financial and government needs for the adults. Plus, the current requirement that Lifeline devices be able to connect to Wi-Fi networks and turn into hotspots helps households make the most of their subsidy through free Wi-Fi at places like the library, Starbucks, or McDonald’s (a particularly popular place for kids to do their homework).

The move to halt support for standalone broadband under Lifeline would shrink the great potential of the program to bridge a dizzying divide: Only 57 percent of black American adults and 47 percent of Hispanic American adults have broadband access at home, in contrast to 72 percent of their white counterparts. And as I mentioned above, this disparity, to no one’s surprise, trickles down to younger generations, too.

But there’s more. The FCC has also proposed eliminating “wireless resellers” from Lifeline. Resellers, in a nutshell, buy access to networks run by  facilities-based providers and resell access to that network to consumers; the majority (over 70 percent) of wireless Lifeline recipients get their service from a wireless reseller. (The good news, though, is that the proposal to ban wireless resellers is so unpopular that it’s brought together progressive and conservative organizations and analysts, public interest organizations, and companies such as Verizon and Sprint to condemn it.)

In all that, the FCC’s proposal represents many steps backward for the agency that has worked for decades to bring the unconnected online. If the FCC continues in this direction, it will be low-income black and Hispanic households that have to suffer the attendant consequences of the commission’s actions. More than other groups, these communities can already feel the impact of the digital divide. If the FCC abdicates its role in this issue, it will, in turn, only perpetuate a vicious cycle that for years has ensured that certain communities remain offline—and on the margins.