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Why many low-income families have Internet access, but remain 'under-connected'

A new report released on Wednesday finds that while 94 percent of low and moderate income families have some type of Internet access, which they use for tasks from doing homework to paying bills, cost is still an issue despite some efforts by Internet providers to introduce affordable alternatives.

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    A woman works on her computer at a sidewalk cafe on a spring day on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2015.
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Technology companies have long hailed affordable Internet programs such as Facebook’s “Free Basics” as a chance to help the "next billion” users across the globe have access to online educational and communication tools.

In the US, low and moderate-income families are also increasingly purchasing technology such as smartphones in order to enhance their children’s education and stay in touch with family and friends, a new national study released on Wednesday finds.

But many families remain “under-connected,” with a stable home Internet connection often out of reach because of high costs, particularly among immigrant Hispanic families, says the study, conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

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“It’s no longer a simple question of whether or not families are connected to the Internet,” says Vikki Katz, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, who co-authored the study, in a statement. “But rather how they are connected, and the implications of being under-connected for children’s access to educational opportunities and parents’ ability to apply for jobs or resources.”

While 94 percent of families in the survey have Internet access, either through a home computer or a smartphone, 52 percent of those with an Internet connection at home say it is too slow; 8 percent of families living below the poverty line use dial-up Internet, the survey found.

Among families who use a mobile phone to go online, 24 percent say they have had their phone service cut off during the past year because they couldn’t afford to pay the bills. Overall, 42 percent of those without home Internet access said the cost was the main reason they lacked access.

The trend is particularly pronounced among families headed by Hispanic immigrants, where 10 percent of families have no Internet access at all, compared to 7 percent of Hispanics born in the US, 5 percent of whites, and 1 percent of black families, the study found. It surveyed nearly 1,200 parents of children aged 6-13 by phone.

The researchers found a more sobering picture about the use of discounted Internet programs intended to benefit low-income families, such as the “Internet Essentials” program offered by Comcast. Only 6 percent of parents living at 185 percent of the poverty level — the standard used to determine whether kids qualify for free or reduced school meals — had ever signed up for the services.

“I had [Internet Essentials] because [my children] had assignments that they needed the computer for,” one parent of a 7th grader in Colorado told the researchers. "I hated it. It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 (a month) to not use it."

But the survey also reveals that many families are increasingly embracing the use of technology to do a range of tasks beyond Internet searches, including as a means to pay bills online, to apply for jobs and — among children — to help their parents learn to use technology and do their homework.

“Our findings reveal important distinctions among parents with regard to technology’s place in public education and whether it enables more equitable access to learning opportunities. They also show that children’s classroom activities are intertwined with their home connectivity and their families’ tech use,” wrote Professor Katz and co-author Victoria Rideout, president of VJR Consulting.

How children use technology also varies depending on how they access the Internet. Half of children who have home Internet access often go online to look up information they are interested in, compared to a third of children who have mobile-only Internet access, notes the report.

Using a mobile phone rather than a home Internet connection to go online also leads to a decrease in the number of children who use computers and the Internet to do tasks such a completing their homework, playing educational games, and making art, music, or “something creative,” the parents say.

For parents living below the poverty level who don’t have a computer or Internet at access at home, using public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop or restaurant is the most common way to go online, followed by using computers or Internet access at a library. That follows efforts to expand the use of public Wi-Fi networks by cities such as New York, which is now making public Wi-Fi terminals available in some parts of Manhattan, with plans to expand them throughout the five boroughs.

Children living below the poverty level without a home computer are more likely to use a computer at a library or community center, a finding that likely points to the success of the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program, which supports Internet access in schools and libraries, in closing the so-called "homework gap" in students' access to the Internet outside the classroom.

“Most importantly, we believe that the challenges to connectivity that our study has showcased are solvable,” the researchers write. “The solution to this challenge will require innovative partnerships and new commitments aligning government, industry, education, and community leaders—including families themselves.”

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