ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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 is according to the Federal Communications Commission, which recently unveiled a plan to change that.
NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL: Lisa Ramirez is one of the 36 million.
Ms. LISA RAMIREZ: It's extra, if you can barely afford so many bills, then it's a luxury.
SYDELL: Ramirez lives in Live Oak, in Santa Cruz County, California. She has three children and a disabled husband whom she supports with a job as a part-time home health care worker. She's been trying to find another, better-paying position. But without a computer and an Internet connection, that's tough.
Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah, they don't have paper applications. Anywhere you go, everything's on computer, and I don't have one. I don't even have an email address. You know, some people require, oh, do you have an email address? I'm, like, no.
SYDELL: Her 17-year-old daughter, Jasmine, has also struggled without a computer or Internet access at home.
Ms. JASMINE RAMIREZ: In school we are required to turn in our essays into a site called Turnitin.com, and that's how we get our grade. And so, we have to not only upload it onto that site, we also have to print it out and then turn it in personally.
SYDELL: So, she had to find a computer.
Ms. J. RAMIREZ: When I could, tried to go to the library, if I had enough time, 'cause the library closes early now because of cutbacks. So we have to try to get the library in time. If not, then I have to go to my school really early so I can type up my essays.
SYDELL: Kids like Jasmine compete with peers who have easy Internet access, says Tim Sylvester. He's a computer security consultant and activist who's been trying to help Live Oak's low-income residents get connected.
Mr. TIM SYLVESTER (Computer Security Consultant and Activist): 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. And those multimillion-dollar homes, they're all going to have Internet access.
SYDELL: 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.
Ms. AMALIA DELONEY (Center for Media Justice): 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. And at the same time, we have an America that's connected and being prepared for a 21st-century education and workforce.
SYDELL: To help change that, the Federal Communications Commission 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 is a director of consumer research at the FCC.
Mr. JOHN HORRIGAN (Director of Consumer Research, FCC): The Broadband Plan recommends that the funds that are devoted to defraying telephone costs be permitted, if the user decides to do this, to compensate them for some portion of their monthly broadband bills.
SYDELL: But monthly bills aren't the only obstacle, says Live Oak activist Tim Sylvester.
Mr. SYLVESTER: Even though Internet access could be $20 a month, you still need a computer. So, a decent computer is around $500, plus a printer. Plus you need to know how to use it.
SYDELL: Indeed, Lisa Ramirez says even when she sits down in front of a computer, she's intimidated.
Ms. L. RAMIREZ: It's been a long time since I worked with a computer because I haven't had one for a few years, you know, it's a challenge.
SYDELL: So to help her, the National Broadband Plan also recommends a digital literacy corps. It 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 Amalia Deloney of the Center for Media Justice praise the plan for placing broadband alongside phone service and electricity as essential to every American.
Ms. DELONEY: There's really not a way that you can see Internet as anything other than a necessity, it's no longer a luxury. Whether it's paying bills online, whether it's sharing news and information online from different countries, different sources.
SYDELL: Recently, Jasmine Ramirez's grandmother gave her family an old laptop and is helping them pay for an Internet connection. But Jasmine says she still doesn't have a printer.
Ms. J. RAMIREZ: So, 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.
SYDELL: Unfortunately, that costs Jasmine 10 cents a page.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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