Here’s some interesting follow-up developments for Joanna’s story on the high costs of internet access for poorer subscribers in Canada. The Digital Equity for Learning project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has shared U.S. data based on a “survey of 1,191 lower-income parents with K-8 children,” which found that “most low- and moderate-income families have some form of Internet connection, but many are under-connected, with mobile-only access and inconsistent connectivity,” and that mobile-only access is still penalizing them for many important uses, such as applying “for jobs or services online,” or kids going “online to look up information about things that they are interested in.” Google might be riding to the rescue, though: after the search giant “partnered with ConnectHome, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the White House,” it has announced that it will “be bringing gigabit Internet service to residents in all public housing properties that we connect with Google Fiber. Families in these properties will be able to access some of the fastest speeds, at no cost to the housing authority or to residents.”
The very detailed Digital Equity for Learning survey found that, while “computers and online connectivity are becoming increasingly important to ensuring that educational opportunity is open to all,” reliance on mobile-only access “defined as being able to connect to the Internet through a smart device such as a tablet or smartphone, without having a computer at home” still acts as a choke point for some of the most important educational and life-enhancement benefits of the internet. Some 94 percent of families surveyed, and 91 percent of those below the poverty line, “have some kind of Internet access, whether through a computer and Internet connection at home, or through a smart mobile device with a data plan.” Out of the sample, 40 percent of those without a home laptop or desktop said the reason was that the device was too expensive. Plus, those with mobile access are more likely to lose it – 24 percent of those surveyed said they had their service cut off within the past year due to non-payment.
Sticking to mobile, as said, hampers some critical types of internet usage. The survey found that only 35 percent of kids with mobile-only access said they would go online to follow up on their interests, compared to 52 percent of those with home access. And only 42 percent of mobile-only users would go online to make job applications or access services, compared to 56 percent of home users. Many similar patterns prevailed across other key areas like online shopping or banking.
These figures might reflect social usage patterns and other trends, rather than the limitations of mobile devices themselves, but it’s sobering nonetheless for mobile device proponents to reflect that their favorite gadgets might be impediments to equal social opportunity. Furthermore, the cost argument on home access devices looks pretty unanswerable, unless Chromebooks or other low-end home devices, and home device purchase plans, do bring costs down to levels comparable with mobile devices.
The lucky Kansas City recipients above may be among the first to benefit from Google Fiber’s largesse. But as the Digital Equity for Learning report suggests, the cost of laptops and desktops is likely to limit the benefits for poorer households, even where free gigabit access has helped close the digital divide. Google may need to deliver more than Google Fiber to really make a difference.
Related: Why can’t the media understand the digital divide—especially the Associated Press, commentary by David Rothman.