(TNS) — In an era where most people take mobile broadband technology for granted, one out of four Fresno County, Calif., households lack any internet access whatsoever – not even a smartphone.
It’s indicative of a “digital divide” that puts low-income and rural households at an economic and educational disadvantage relative to residents who have ready access to up-to-date internet technology. Nationwide, about 17 million households – or 14% of U.S. households – have no internet access. In Fresno County, it’s more than 73,600 households — roughly 25 percent.
“Today, internet at home is like books to read, reading glasses to see and a meal to eat,” Larry Ortega, founder of One Million NIU (new internet users) and advocate for affordable broadband access for low-income families. “It is obligatory, not a luxury. … Our future economic engine needs these tools to be in place.”
The Federal Communications Commission, through its Connect America Fund Phase II auctions, is spending $13.5 million over the next 10 years to provide broadband service to about 5,600 rural homes and businesses in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties.
In Fresno County, the FCC’s investment of about $4.1 million will cover about 1,800 homes and businesses – but that’s a relative drop in the bucket among the estimated 73,600 households that lack internet access in the county.
The latest wave of money was authorized this week by the FCC to expand broadband access in rural areas across the country.
“In California and across the nation, we’re continuing to close the digital divide so that all Americans – no matter where they live – have access to affordable broadband connectivity and the digital opportunity it brings,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a prepared statement.
Companies that bid in the Connect America Fund auction program are expected to cover about 700,000 sites.
Satellite provider Viasat is the recipient of the round of money announced this week. The company is obligated to provide broadband service with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. It is required to provide the service at a lower cost and with higher usage allowances than it offers in areas that aren’t supported by the federal funds.
Earlier this year, the FCC proposed a $20.4 billion program, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, targeting rural areas to expand broadband access for another 4 million homes and businesses.
Why it matters
The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that the digital divide between internet haves and have-nots poses a significant challenge to children in homes without internet access. In a 2018 report, Pew researchers indicated that about 17% of teenage students said they sometimes have trouble finishing assigned homework because they don’t have reliable access to the internet or to a computer. The rate is even higher for students from minority households and from low-income families.
Additionally, the Pew report indicated that more than one-third of teens said they sometimes have to do homework on their cellular phone, and as many as 45%of teens in low-income households.
Comcast, one of the largest cable television and Internet service providers in the country, offers low-cost internet through its Internet Essentials program to eligible low-income families in areas that are served by its cable systems. Households that receive some form of public assistance – Medicaid, food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 housing or other public housing, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example – can get internet service for $9.95 per month with an option to buy a low-cost computer.
But wide swaths of rural Fresno County outside of cities or towns aren’t yet wired for cable service – areas where the Comcast program isn’t an option.
One Million NIU’s Ortega said low-income families have too long been left behind by major internet providers who have dragged their feet expanding their infrastructure..
“Children literally cannot do their homework on cell phone devices, and should not be expected to because that is not how America does business, …” Ortega wrote in his October blog post. “Children can’t type a paper the same as their peers who do have high-speed quality internet at home. They can’t do research the same and will not learn the same as children who have these basic tools needed to succeed and advance academically.”
“Ever been to the DMV, doctor’s office, bank, or post office? How about writing a research paper?” he added. “Preparing to buy your house, pulling together your financials, and bank statements, monthly expenses – how fun would that be to do it from a cell phone. Sure there is no denying it can be done, but why would you?”
©2019 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.