Two years ago, Michael Ibarra’s “Big Brother” helped him get a scholarship to a private school by researching options online. But during the first half of sixth grade at the Clairbourn School in San Gabriel, California, Michael couldn’t keep up. His grades were slipping. The scholarship he got with the help of the Internet was taking him only so far because he didn’t have online access at home.
Michael lives with his 77-year-old grandmother, Margaret Ibarra, whose $1,400-a-month income doesn’t lend to extravagance, and paying for a high-speed Internet connection would put them over the top of their strict budget. “I know he needs [the Internet] desperately,” she says. “Yesterday, he was crying because he had a project that he had to do. Most of his homework comes through the network.” Thankfully, Michael’s Big Brother recently stepped in again, paying temporarily for the pricey Internet connection.
These days, if you’re not online, you’re not just out of luck—you’re also without access to education, jobs and much-needed tasks like online banking. Without the Internet, Michael, like 20 million other Americans, was being left behind.
According to the Census Bureau, more than 40 percent of all homes are not connected to the Internet or use antiquated “dial-up” technology. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the digital divide. According to a 2008 report by Free Press, a national media reform organization, only 40 percent of households of color subscribe to broadband, while 55 percent of white households are connected. The nation’s Latino population in particular fares among the worst, with only 35 percent having a broadband connection.
As high-speed Internet becomes increasingly expensive, middle- and low-income families are less able to afford it. According to the same Free Press report, only 35 percent of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have broadband, while 76 percent of households earning more than $50,000 per year are connected in that manner. For many Latino communities living on the margins in Los Angeles, paying for pricey broadband service isn’t even a possibility.
Julia Huerta and her 14-year-old daughter Lily live in South Los Angeles and rely on the local community center where Julia works to jump online when the computers are free. Asked what her family would have to give up in order to afford Internet at home, Huerta shakes her head. “We can’t,” she says.
The digital divide extends beyond connectivity; many people don’t have the training, skills or equipment to get online, or they live in an area that has been redlined by Internet service providers who find little incentive to build out to their communities.
Andy Beckers, a 28-year-old Latino living in Azusa, California, was recently laid off after eight years at a shipping-and-receiving job. He’s searching for jobs online, but he doesn’t have Internet access at home. “I was going to buy a computer a long time ago, but I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “And right now it’s even worse.”
Beckers often waits several hours to get his chance to use one of the Azusa Public Library’s few computers. “I could be doing something else right now instead of waiting here,” he said.
Libraries across the country are shouldering the burden of providing Internet access to offline communities. And in Azusa, where a crowd of people rushes through the library doors every morning to find a computer, it’s a struggle to meet the demand.
Albert Tovar, Azusa’s library director, says the problem extends beyond affording computers and finding space for them in the crowded library.
“We’re in a 50-year-old building, but yet we’re using high technology,” Tovar says. “Even if I had more money to buy more computers, I’m maxed-out in terms of power. I need to bring in more electricity, or otherwise I’m going to blow out circuits in this building.”
Tovar says the library’s rule that youth must be accompanied by an adult in order to use the computers acts as another barrier. “In this community, both parents have to work,” Tovar says, making young people reliant on both the library’s operating hours and their parents’ work schedule to get online.
Before Michael got the Internet at home, science projects like his astronomy report went unfinished—he needed the Internet to do his research. “Sometimes I look up some information in study hall, but we don’t have very much time in study hall, only 45 minutes,” he says.
His teachers, however, weren’t always doing their part to ensure equal opportunities for learning. Michael recalled “getting in trouble at school with my teacher telling me, ‘You didn’t do your homework.’ The reason is that I can’t.”
Sometimes Michael would ask his neighbor for help. “I feel like a nuisance when I have to go knock on my neighbor’s door to ask to use the Internet because I don’t have it,” he says. “It feels kind of weird to go to someone’s house to just use their Internet.”
With most of his peers online, Michael was aware of the divide that separated them, affecting more than just his education. He feared he was being left out of a new social era, where friends congregate on MySpace rather than the playground and communicate through e-mail and chat instead of a phone call.
“It makes me feel left out because sometimes my friends call me and say, ‘Oh, there’s this cool thing on the Internet, go to this site.’ I feel like I’m missing out on something,” he says.
Brian Mendez, director of Change Agent Productions, part of the YMCA of Greater Long Beach’s Downtown Community Development Branch, finds the digital divide hitting close to home.
“My parents don’t use e-mail, and I think that really hinders their modes of communication,” he says. “My family is from Mexico, and they still rarely speak with their siblings because phone bills are still pretty expensive and they don’t have the resources to communicate.”
Mendez says having a high-speed connection affects multiple facets of life. “It’s the difference between finding a near-by hospital or near-by clinic online or even getting a scholarship in before a deadline so you don’t have to drive up to 10 miles to make it to a post office by 5 p.m. when you’re in a rural area,” he says. “Smaller things like that that most of us take for granted.”
Offline communities may have some hope. President Obama and Congress have passed a stimulus package that includes $7.2 billion for broadband expansion across the country, particularly in rural and unserved areas.
But this is only one piece of the puzzle, and the conversation about how to get affordable broadband into every home in America is bubbling across the nation.
More than 160 public interest organizations and industry groups (including the ACLU, Facebook, Free Press, Google and the Writer’s Guild of America) have united at InternetforEveryone.org. They’re collaborating on a national series of town hall meetings to start a public discussion about what the future of the Internet should look like. They held a town hall meeting in Los Angeles in December 2008, and this past March in Durham, North Carolina, and are planning similar meetings later this year.
Along with physical meetings, InternetforEveryone.org is hosting a digital town hall, where people can discuss what they think the future of the Internet should look like.
And in Los Angeles, people like Michael Ibarra who have been shut out of these debates for too long are speaking out for those left across the digital divide and for Latinos in particular.
“It’s hard to do a lot of things without the Internet,” he says. “Other people don’t have that struggle because they have Internet. But the people who can’t afford it have that kind of struggle.”
Watch a video and read more at RaceWire.org.
Megan Tady is a blogger and campaign coordinator for Free Press.