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Low-Income Americans Face Internet Access That Is Slow, at Risk of Disruption

The digital divide now separates those with fast access from those with slow speeds, often only via cellphone.

Joan Ganz Cooney Center

The good news is that the vast majority of Americans, even low-income ones, now have some access to the Internet. The bad news is that many are “under-connected,” with mobile-only access that is subject to data caps or interruption due to payment issues.

A new study of lower-income parents found that 94 percent had some kind of Internet connection, but more than half said their connections were slow and almost a quarter rely solely on a mobile device. One in five said their Internet was cut off some time in the last year due to inability to pay. The study, conducted by Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Rutgers University, also found disparities based on ethnicities.

“The question of whether low- and moderate-income families have access to the Internet and digital devices remains a critical national issue,” according to a report being released Wednesday. “But access is no longer just a yes/no question. The quality of families’ Internet connections, and the kinds and capabilities of devices they can access, have considerable consequences for parents and children alike.”

The report comes as the Federal Communications Commission explores whether or not to expand subsidies to low-income families to cover Internet access. While phone service is covered by federal programs, many families are forced to choose between a home phone with unlimited calling or a cellphone with limited talk and data access. The study also found that few families are signing up for the low-cost Internet service that has been available.

Those with mobile-only access are less likely to shop, pay bills or bank online, and their children are less likely to use the Internet on a daily basis.

The study also found ethnic disparities, with Latino immigrant families the most likely to have no Internet access or to rely solely on a mobile phone for connection to the Internet.

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