In major metropolitan areas across the U.S., unequal access to the Internet is cutting some people off from a better future. Citizens on the wrong side of the digital gap are losing out on economic, educational and social opportunities.
It's not just a technical problem for the 21st century.
"This is a civil rights issue," said Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community.
"Low-income people, people with less than a high school education and older people are the groups in any population who are least likely to have an Internet connection at home,” he said.
Callahan's group advocates for digital access and literacy in greater Cleveland and Detroit. In those cities -- and others from Baltimore to New Orleans, from Miami to Glendale, Arizona -- as many as 30 to 40 percent of residents can't easily get online, according to 2013 data.
Rural areas have a fairly well-known set of digital access problems that include high cost and sluggish speeds due to the lack of broadband infrastructure. But in suburban and metro areas, libraries are typically cited as a the saving grace for residents who lack online access at home.
That's not good enough in our wired world. "If the best someone can do is point you to the library, that’s basically 'separate but equal,'” said Callahan, making a pointed reference to the very argument that the Supreme Court once declared didn't justify segregated schools.
If the best someone can do is point you to the library, that’s basically 'separate but equal.' Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community
In Detroit, nearly 40 percent of residents have no Internet service, not even via smartphones. That abysmal rate was noted in a recent New York Times story detailing how lack of access has stymied economic recovery for some people.
Detroit resident Julie Rice told the paper about her struggle to network, complete training videos and fill out online job applications with her limited connectivity.
“I’ve come to believe Internet is a human right," Rice said. "It’s clearly a huge disadvantage if you don’t have it.”
Underscoring the importance of universal access, the Federal Communications Commission last year declared that broadband service is a public utility akin to electricity or telephone service.
In all but the most rural areas, the problem isn't a lack of infrastructure, said Callahan. As with so many other civil rights issues, the problem is economics.
"The idea that you can’t get Internet connection in a city because there’s no Internet available is almost never true,” he said. "People can get AT&T DSL in their homes any place in Detroit — they just can’t afford it."
Without the Internet, poor people can be stuck on the wrong side of the door to opportunity.
"The 40-year-old guy who can’t apply for a job now because he can’t get online would have no problem 10 years ago," Callahan said. "He can still do the job. All that’s changed is the system to get the job."
This hypothetical man all too often gets blamed for not being employed. Yet Callahan said, “This is not a failure on his part."
Robert Shimkoski of the Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, which helps connect jobseekers with employers in that city, said a lack of Internet access can trap low-income people in a vicious cycle.
"It’s increasingly difficult to find an employer who will take a physical application over an online app," Shimkoski said. "And if you can’t get online, you can’t get the resources to understand where you can go to get that connection to help."
Callahan said Internet access rates have remained largely the same in the two years since the U.S. Census Bureau last released figures. But the digital divide keeps getting wider, he said, as more systems across every industry -- from health care to education -- go online.
For example, Callahan cited a major change to the GED that went into effect in 2014. In theory, the second chance at a high school diploma can be a lifeline for struggling Americans. But now, he said, "All GED testing is in a computerized environment, though not online. Most of the models by which you can prepare depend on having access to online resources.”
The shift to digital is one of the reasons, Callahan argued, that the success rate for GED candidates in Cleveland -- where more than 33 percent of residents lack Internet access -- plummeted by an estimated 85 percent that year.
“[Digitalizing systems] is progressing very quickly, and they’re essentially being put in a walled village, and you need to pay to get past it," Callahan said. "And no one is willing to spend money to help the people on the outside get in."
Ensuring that there are community access points, like libraries and technology hubs, is important, but ultimately they're no substitute for reliable Internet at home.
Callahan and Shimkoski are both optimistic about pilot programs from Comcast and AT&T that provide basic broadband access -- and in some cases web training and low-cost laptops -- to low-income residents.
Comcast in 2011 began the Comcast Essentials program to offer Internet access (without setup fees or contracts) to families who have at least one child who qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. The company's most recent report indicated that more than 17,000 residents had taken advantage of the program in Detroit.
AT&T launched a similar program last month. It dropped the price to as little as $5 a month and widened the pool of eligibility to anyone in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. But CNN reports that Internet access under the AT&T program is at speeds considered below the threshold of broadband and there are data caps.
Still, Callahan said the programs are a digital step in the right direction.