Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Takes Steps to Bridge Digital Divide ; Schools Push Use of Web, but Some Poorer Families Struggle to Afford Access

Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Takes Steps to Bridge Digital Divide ; Schools Push Use of Web, but Some Poorer Families Struggle to Afford Access

Article excerpt

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote soon on a plan that could add subsidies for broadband Internet services.

At 7 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Isabella and Tony Ruiz were standing in their usual homework spot, on a crumbling sidewalk across the street from the elementary school nearest to their home.

"I got it. I'm going to download," Isabella said to her brother Tony as they connected to the school's wireless hot spot and watched her teacher's math guide slowly appear on the cracked screen of the family smartphone.

Isabella, 11, and Tony, 12, were outside the school because they have no Internet service at home -- and connectivity is getting harder. With their mother, Maria, out of work for months and money coming only from their father, Isaias, who washes dishes, the family had cut back on almost everything, including their cellphone data plan.

So every weeknight, the siblings stood outside the low-slung school, sometimes for hours, to complete homework for the sixth grade.

"There's just no funds left," Maria Ruiz said later outside the family's white clapboard rental home. "It worries me because it will become more important to have Internet when they have to do more homework."

With many educators pushing for students to use resources on the Internet with class work, the federal government is grappling with a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed Internet at home and an estimated five million families in the United States who are without it and who are struggling to keep up.

The challenge is felt across the nation. Some students in Coachella, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala., depend on school buses that have free Wi-Fi to complete their homework. The buses are sometimes parked in residential neighborhoods overnight so that children can connect and continue studying. In cities like Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, where as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband, children crowd libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots.

The divide is driving action at the federal level. Members of the Federal Communications Commission are expected to vote next month on repurposing a roughly $2 billion-a-year phone subsidy program, known as Lifeline, to include subsidies for broadband services in low- income homes.

"This is what I call the homework gap, and it is the cruelest part of the digital divide," said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the commission who has pushed to overhaul the Lifeline program.

Ms. Rosenworcel cited research showing that seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires web access. Yet one-third of kindergartners through 12th graders in the United States, from low- income and rural households, are unable to go online from home. The Obama administration announced in July its own program to help address the problem, deploying free and affordable broadband into public housing.

The Lifeline plan has drawn strong criticism from the two Republicans among the five F.C.C. commissioners, and from some lawmakers, who say the program, which was introduced in 1985 to bring phone services to low-income families, has been wasteful and was abused.

In 2008, when the commission added subsidies for mobile-phone services to discounts for landlines, some homes started double- billing the program, and the budget for the fund ballooned. Various investigations, including a government review in early 2015, questioned the effectiveness of the phone program and whether the commission had done enough to monitor for abuse.

But advocacy groups for children and minorities have backed the F.C.C. plan, saying it will be important in preventing students from falling further behind their peers.

"For young people, broadband is like the air we breathe," said James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group known for its reviews and age-based ratings of videos, websites and books that has campaigned for the changes in Lifeline. …

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