Some 36 million Americans don't have high-speed Internet service — not because they can't get connected, but because it costs too much. That's according to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC recently released a plan to bring service to all Americans, including those who can't afford it.
Lisa Ramirez is one of the 36 million.
"It's extra," Ramirez says. "If you can barely afford so many bills, it's a luxury."
Ramirez lives in Live Oak, in Santa Cruz County, Calif. She has three children and a disabled husband whom she supports with a job as a part-time home health care worker. She has been trying to find another, better-paying position. But without a computer and an Internet connection, that's tough.
"They don't have paper applications," says Ramirez. "Anywhere you go, everything's on computer, and I don't have one. I don't even have an e-mail address."
Her 17-year-old daughter, Jasmine, has also struggled without a computer or Internet access at home.
"In school we are required to turn in our essays into a site called Turnitin.com," Jasmine says. "And that's how we get our grade. So we have to not only upload it onto that site, we also have to print it out and then turn it in to [the teacher], personally."
So, she had to find a computer.
Jasmine would try to go to the library if she could make it there in time. "The library closes early now because of cutbacks," she says. So if she doesn't make it there on time, she has to go to school early to type up her papers.
Kids like Jasmine compete with peers who have easy Internet access, says Tim Sylvester. He's a computer security consultant and activist who has been trying to help Live Oak's low-income residents get connected.
"Here in Live Oak, you could have a mobile home park, and then 200 yards away you could have a little division with multimillion-dollar homes," Sylvester says. "And those multimillion-dollar homes, they're all going to have Internet access."
That stark rich/poor divide is striking in Live Oak. But the digital divide is very real across the country, says Amalia Deloney of the Center for Media Justice, a national organization that works in low-income communities.
"There's one America that's largely disconnected, that is full of people of color, people from rural communities, migrants, folks that don't have a lot of money, and they're largely disconnected," Deloney says. "And at the same time, there's an America that's connected and being prepared for a 21st-century education and workforce."
Overcoming The Technological Obstacles
To help change that, the FCC came up with its National Broadband Plan. The plan specifically suggests tapping into what's called the Universal Service Fund — a federal program to help subsidize phone service for low-income households.
John Horrigan, a director of consumer research at the FCC, says the Broadband Plan recommends that the funds that are devoted to defraying telephone costs be allowed to be used to defray broadband costs "if the user decides to do this — to compensate them for some portion of their monthly broadband bills."
But monthly bills aren't the only obstacle, says Sylvester.
"Even though Internet access could be $20 a month, you still need a computer," he says. "A decent computer is at least around $500, plus a printer. Plus you need to know how to use it."
Indeed, Lisa Ramirez says even when she sits down in front of a computer, she's intimidated.
"It's been a long time since I worked with a computer because I haven't had one for a few years," she says. "It's a challenge."
So to help her, the National Broadband Plan also recommends a Digital Literacy Corps that would go into neighborhoods around the country and train people to use computers and the Internet for education, and to help them find jobs.
While some critics call the plan vague, others like Deloney praise the plan for placing broadband alongside phone service and electricity as essential to every American.
"There's really not a way that you can see Internet as anything other than a necessity, and it's no longer a luxury," she says.
Recently, Jasmine Ramirez's grandmother gave her family an old laptop, and she also is helping them pay for an Internet connection. But Jasmine says she still doesn't have a printer.
"I can type up my essays, take as much time as I need to, which is the luxury I will take — it's valuable to me. And then I can just go to my school and print it out," she says.
Unfortunately, that costs Jasmine 10 cents a page.