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Poor families face unreliable Internet access: report

Although poor Americans use the Internet just about as much as richer counterparts, disparities in access remain

Poor and middle-income American families use the Internet almost as much as their better-off neighbors, but they endure more challenges in accessing the net than those with more means, according to study results released Monday.

The study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which researches how families use digital technology, found that poorer families rely on the Internet just as much as richer ones — but that they often struggle to use the net on anything more sophisticated than a simple smartphone, in most cases because they cannot afford other kinds of equipment or the required service charges.

For children, Internet access is becoming increasingly important to completing schoolwork and learning, meaning unreliable connections can hold kids back, according to the study. It calls for expanded Internet access as a way of relieving poverty and lack of education.

About 81 percent of low-income children between the ages of 6 and 13 try to use the Internet to play educational games, with the same proportion of low-income kids between 10 and 13 attempting to use it for homework, the study said.

“To have a good shot at being college- and career-ready, every student needs to be online gaining digital literacy starting in the primary grades. It is imperative that we make sure no child in America is under-connected,” said Michael H. Levine, the Cooney Center’s executive director.

The study found that 94 percent of poorer Americans use the Internet in some way — but among those who can only use it on mobile phones, 29 percent report reaching their data limits over the last year. Also, 24 percent say missing payments led to shutoffs, and 21 percent said they can’t use a device to access the net because too many others in their household need it.

Subsidies exist to help families get online, but many don’t know they’re available, according to the study. In other cases, service doesn’t satisfy their needs because it is too slow. 

“Programs that provide discounted Internet access to low-income families are broadly under-utilized by those who would qualify for them,” the study says. “One-quarter of those who have signed up for these programs were dissatisfied with them. We can do better.”

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