Schoolchildren living in South Los Angeles are 26 percent less likely to have access to high-speed internet at home than their peers around the county, according to a policy brief published on July 28 by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. They are also twice as likely to rely on smartphones as the alternative means to connect online.
This so-called “homework gap” is one finding in a larger study that addresses what it describes as an expanding “digital underclass” of low-income Angelenos who are mostly black or Latino.
“You can’t really do homework on a small device on a mobile broadband connection,” says Hernan Galperin, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor at the Annenberg School. “It can be difficult to apply for job or to apply for social services; there’s a number of examples of when mobile connectivity can be limiting.”
Researchers from the Annenberg School and the USC Price Spatial Analysis Lab collaborated to map the results from a survey of about 35,000 households of Los Angeles County.
They found the share of school-age children that live in connected households in South Los Angeles has fallen from 76 percent in 2013 to 71 percent in 2015. By contrast, that share has increased countywide from 84 percent to 88 percent during the same period.
The study also found the "digital underclass" is most pronounced within a 20-square mile area of South L.A. straddling the Harbor Freeway that includes the neighborhoods of Vermont Harbor, Avalon Gardens, South Park and Watts. South L.A. as a whole is 38 percent African-American and 57 percent Latino, according to Mapping L.A.
The policy brief states:
The Internet is the lifeblood of social inclusion in the 21st century. It is a gateway to better education, to job opportunities, to health resources, and to civic engagement, among many other
potential benefits of being online."
Galperin says the disparity in high-speed internet access is driven mainly by the high price for home DSL or cable plans. An Annenberg study released in December, co-authored by Galperin, attributed the high prices in part to a finding that a full two-thirds of Southland residents have no choice for high-speed broadband.
By contrast, mobile broadband is more affordable than DSL or cable internet connections, in large part because the telephone and cable providers exercise a stranglehold on access, he says.
The study found that though income is the main factor in the disparity, it is not the only one. “Even after accounting for income and other variables, racial minorities are slightly less likely to have home broadband,” Galperin says.
Galperin says the limited experience with technology of many senior citizens can also be a factor contributing to the disparity found in the study. Seniors' computer skills can sometimes be limited, he says.
A bill currently under review in the California Assembly might be a way to start addressing the problem. Known as the Internet for All Now Act, the legislation would award $20 million to programs offering digital literacy training, public education and outreach programs to low-income populations, including seniors and people with disabilities. The Annenberg School's researchers who produced the policy brief are supporting the bill, Galperin says.
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It is not the first time in recent years that state or local government has taken an initiative to increase broadband access. In 2015, the city approved a more ambitious program aimed at ultimately providing free broadband Internet to residents across the city. The private investments needed to fund the network, known as CityLinkLA, have not materialized.
Help is not expected to come from Washington, either. Ajit Pai, Trump's appointment to chair the FCC, has opposed Net Neutrality and supported the brand of mega-mergers that led to previous price hikes for high-speed internet.