Although 94 percent of low- and moderate-income families have some form of internet connection, many are “under-connected,” meaning that their connectivity is inconsistent or only available through a mobile device, according to a new report from Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.
“It’s no longer a simple question of whether or not families are connected to the internet,” said study coauthor Vikki S. Katz, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, “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.”
According to the report, Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Low-Income Families, 23 percent of families below the median income level and 33 percent of those below the poverty level exclusively rely on a mobile device for internet access. Of those families with mobile-only access, 29 percent say they have hit data limits on their plan in the past year while 24 percent say their phone service has been turned off within the last year due to lack of payment.
Among low- and moderate-income families with home internet access, 52 percent say their connection is too slow, 26 percent say too many people share the same computer, and 20 percent say their internet has been cut off in the last year due to lack of payment.
The report notes that the lack of a consistent connection to the internet has far-reaching—and long-term—consequences for children and adults alike.
“Among youth, being under-connected means that critical opportunities to develop creative projects, take advantage of educational media, explore extracurricular programs, and complete homework, are limited,” the report notes. “These limitations can compound over a child’s school years. Educational pathways become restricted, and with them, career opportunities as well. Parents are less able to find or deploy resources to aid the whole family. Today, those most in need of finding services, obtaining jobs, and increasing educational opportunities are the least likely to have full access to the digital technologies that can help provide a level playing field. In sum, digital inequality can contribute to educational inequality, which in turn perpetuates economic inequality.”
In an effort to provide greater internet connectivity among low-income households, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed modernizing the Lifeline program. The program, which served more than 12 million households last year, provides monthly telephone service discounts for low-income families to assist them in finding jobs, accessing health care services, and supporting their families. The FCC is currently examining how to modernize the program by better supporting twenty-first-century communications such as discounted broadband service for eligible families.
As part of Digital Learning Day on February 17, the Alliance for Excellent Education will host “Digital Equity and Access: Connecting Students Beyond School,” a live video discussion with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Coachella Valley Unified School District (CA) Superintendent Darryl Adams to examine the federal role in supporting digital equity, as well as how Coachella Valley Unified is tackling connectivity gaps in rural California. Learn more at www.DigitalLearningDay.org/Equity.
Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Low-Income Families is available at http://bit.ly/1Wblsxe.
 The report defines “mobile-only access” as being able to connect to the internet through a smart device such as a tablet or smartphone, without having a computer at home.