Digital Denied: Free Press Report Exposes the Impact of Systemic Racism on Internet Adoption

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Timothy Karr, 201-533-8838

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, Free Press released a comprehensive study examining and exposing links between the digital divide and systemic discrimination in America.

Digital Denied takes a deep and detailed look at the role race plays in determining whether a person has affordable home access to high-speed internet services. The Free Press research finds that communities of color are on the wrong side of the digital divide in ways that income differences alone do not explain.

Systemic racial discrimination has a measurable impact on home-internet adoption because it affects income inequality and also exacerbates other disparities that are barriers to adoption in communities of color. Free Press also finds that, contrary to one conventional narrative, people of color who do not subscribe to internet service actually have a very high demand for it. This means they would benefit greatly from lower prices and more choices for service.

Digital Denied reveals persistent gaps in home-internet adoption between people of different races and ethnicities. “Why do such gaps exist?” asks S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press and author of the report. “There are numerous possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive. The answer is not that people of color simply have a lower overall demand for internet access. Indeed, the data indicate that members of these communities who are on the wrong side of the digital divide have a high demand for internet access, but do not subscribe due largely to cost concerns.”

Click here to read the full Free Press report.

The data illustrate persistent broadband-adoption and deployment gaps for people of different races and ethnicities, even after one accounts for differences in household income and other factors. In addition to race and ethnicity, factors that are associated with home-internet adoption include educational attainment and use of the internet at work or school.

Digital Denied finds that exposure to the internet at work is strongly associated with home adoption. Yet Hispanic and Black workers are far less likely than Whites to be exposed to the internet on the job — even when they are employed in the same kinds of jobs.

The Free Press report also shows that higher levels of competition and choice in the mobile marketplace have largely closed such divides in mobile-internet and cellphone adoption. These are product markets in which some low-income households of color have equal or even higher levels of adoption than low-income White households do. This absence of racial or ethnic gaps in mobile-service adoption derives in part from increased competition, which in turn contributes to the lower prices for these services. Mobile providers are willing to offer prepaid and resold services too, making these services more affordable and more accessible to people in typically marginalized communities.

“Higher adoption levels in the wireless marketplace stand in stark contrast to the market for high-speed wired-internet access, which is a duopoly at best,” said Turner. “Wired providers have failed to offer resold or prepaid services, and generally have required potential customers to undergo credit checks or make cash deposits — practices that contribute to the digital divide by exacerbating existing racial disparities in credit scoring, housing and other economic sectors.”

According to Turner, public policies aimed at closing the digital divide must focus on correcting these and other failures endemic to the home-internet market, such as supra-competitive pricing, providers’ cross-subsidization between their legacy cable-TV businesses and their broadband platforms, and the lack of a functioning resale/wholesale market. “Confronting these market failures would enable more people in marginalized communities to access advanced telecommunications services and purchase those services in an equitable manner.”

Key findings from Digital Denied include:

  • While 81 percent of Whites and 83 percent of Asians have home internet (counting wired and wireless subscriptions alike as “home” access), only 70 percent of Hispanics, 68 percent of Blacks, 72 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives, and 68 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders are connected at home.
  • People of color comprise 38 percent of the U.S. population but 47 percent of the population without home internet. But young people of color (ages 3 to 17) comprise 62 percent of the youth population without home internet, despite comprising 48 percent of this age group.
  • The median household income of Whites ($62,950) and Asians ($77,166) is far higher than that of Hispanics ($45,148) and Blacks ($36,898). However, these differences in income across race and ethnicity do not explain the entirety of this digital divide.
  • There is still a racial/ethnic digital divide even among persons in the lowest-income quintile. Among those with annual family incomes below $20,000, 58 percent of Whites have home-internet access versus just 51 percent of Hispanics and 50 percent of Black people in the same income bracket.
  • After accounting for differences in income, education, age and other factors impacting the decision to subscribe, we observe a home-internet adoption gap of 6 to 8 percent between Hispanic, Black and Native American households and White households.
  • Internet use at work highly correlates with home-internet adoption. Nearly 95 percent of employed individuals who go online at work have home internet, compared to just 66 percent of employed individuals who do not use the internet at their jobs. Exposure to the internet at work varies greatly by race/ethnicity. For example, among employed persons, 61 percent of Whites go online at work, versus just 38 percent of Hispanics and 47 percent of Blacks. Even within many occupation categories, we see that Hispanics and Blacks are statistically significantly less likely to use the internet at work than Whites in those same occupation categories.
  • While only 18 percent of non-adopting White households say they would subscribe at a lower price, 33 percent of non-adopting Hispanic households and 28 percent of non-adopting Black households say they would. Put in terms of population, of the 28 million Black and Hispanic persons (age 3+) without home internet, 15 million reside in households that cite cost and affordability-related reasons for non-adoption, and 10 million of these 28 million say they would subscribe at a lower price.

Findings are based chiefly on Free Press’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data for demographic information and FCC broadband-deployment data. Read more of Digital Denied.

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