Stewards at the Equitable Internet Initiative testing equipment in Detroit. Image: Lara Heintz/Motherboard
The digital divide between people who have affordable, reliable access to high speed internet and those who don’t takes many forms. Rural communities tend to be less served than urban areas. Lower income families are less likely to have access than higher income groups. And, less cited but just as significant: people of color are disproportionately less likely to have access to the internet than their white counterparts.
A 2016 report from Free Press, an open internet advocacy group, found that 81 percent of white Americans have access to home internet, compared to 70 percent of Hispanic Americans and 68 percent of African Americans. This gap is most severe at the lowest income level, according to the report, but that’s not the whole story.“Even if you account for people’s income, there’s still a disparity in black and brown communities that can’t be explained by financial difference,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, the senior campaign director for media, democracy and economic justice at Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group.In its report, Free Press found that systemic racial discrimination in the broadband market had a role to play in exacerbating this existing divide. Internet infrastructure is often built first in more affluent and more white communities, leaving lower income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color with fewer options. Fewer options also mean less market demands on prices, which only makes it harder for lower income families to afford to get online.Take Google Fiber, for instance, which has expanded to offer service across its first pilot city, Kansas City. When it first arrived in town and started deciding which neighborhoods would be hooked up first, white, affluent areas were at the top of the list and many communities of color didn’t make the cut.
“[The divide] is very real, but on the flip side black and brown people over-index on technology and new social platforms,” Collins-Dester said. “So you see an overrepresentation of black people on Twitter and Facebook and all of these spaces that are drivers of culture, even while we continue to be left out of the fold when it comes to technological adoption.”“It’s not just people living far out in rural areas and everyone really deserves to have the choice to connect,” said Erin Shields, the national field organizer for internet rights with the Center for Media Justice, a digital equality nonprofit.Part of the problem is that this aspect of the digital divide has not been as well documented or addressed politically, leaving communities to seek out alternative solutions. In Detroit, for example, the Equitable Internet Initiative is building community-owned and operated internet infrastructure in underserved areas.
“Sixty percent of Detroit is without high-speed internet, some without even dial-up internet,” Nyasia Valdez, digital stewed trainer with the Equitable Internet Initiative told me when I visited Detroit last fall. “Things like the Water Department, DTE (utilities), social services, are all online. People are being left behind in a system where technology is moving forward.”Now the Federal Communications Commission, and its chairman Ajit Pai, is considering a move that would exacerbate the issue further. The Lifeline program, a subsidy to provide low-income individuals with affordable communications access, such as cell service, is facing major rollbacks, including a federal spending cap on the program and limits on which providers can offer the service. This move would also disproportionately affect people of color. For many low income individuals, their Lifeline-subsidized phone is their only way to get online. Without it, that digital divide would widen.“There’s no reason for Ajit Pai to be doing this and yet he is,” said Joseph Torres, the senior external affairs director for Free Press. “As many as 70 percent of Lifeline recipients will not have a provider as a result of these changes.”Each of the experts I spoke with is working to raise awareness on this issue as the latest in a long history of political decisions hurting communities of color when it comes to technology. The FCC is currently accepting comments from the public on its proposed changes to Lifeline.“There is a war on the poor happening with the FCC,” Torres said.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .