Fewer Options, Higher Prices
Yet such efforts do not address the underlying policies that make high-speed Internet unaffordable to the poorest Americans, experts say. Under the Bush administration, the FCC decided that cable companies should be exempt from federal regulations that forced them to lease their lines to their rivals, saying the requirements would have curbed their incentives to invest in their networks.
Many experts, however, say building a broadband network is so expensive that without such regulations new players can't compete, leaving consumers to choose largely between two Internet providers: the cable company and the telephone company. Without more options, there is nothing to push down Internet prices, according to S. Derek Turner, research director of the public interest group Free Press.
"If we had competition, that consumer in the Bronx wouldn't have to pay $40 a month for basic Internet service,” Turner said. “They'd be paying $15 or $20 a month."
Other countries that require companies to lease access to their rivals often have lower Internet prices, according to a study by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In Sweden, customers pay $19 a month for broadband Internet of 1 megabit-per-second, while American consumers pay $35 a month for the same speed, the New America Foundation found.
Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, insisted that "competition is very strong" among Internet service providers because cable companies are competing against satellite Internet providers and telephone companies for customers. "There isn't an industry that has done more to bring broadband to all of the United States than the cable industry," Dietz said.
But the cost of high-speed Internet is inching higher. In 2010, the average monthly broadband bill was $40. That’s up from $34.50 in May 2008, according to surveys conducted by the FCC and Pew Research Center.
For Maldonado, such prices are out of reach, and her lack of online access at home is taking its toll. She needs the Internet to research doctors who accept her insurance and to look up confusing medical terms for her class. She can’t check email regularly to keep in touch with family or reply to other job opportunities. She spends extra time in the computer lab at school, jotting down notes from the Internet to study later because she doesn’t have access to a printer. Her son also needs to get online to finish homework assignments.
Maldonado has even started bartering her services for Internet access, doing her friend’s hair and nails in exchange for using the woman’s laptop and Wi-Fi connection.
“It’s just so exhausting because I use the Internet all the time,” she said. “I’m always back and forth to the library. Some days, I feel completely defeated.”
A Major Inconvenience
On a recent afternoon at the Bronx Library Center, Jamal Mason sat before a computer screen while a small clock counted down the minutes until his online session expired, forcing him to give up his seat to the next person in line.
Wearing a button-down shirt and thick-framed glasses, Mason, 42, was searching for a job as a substitute teacher. But he is grateful for any kind of work. He tutors on the side and has applied for jobs at Home Depot and six Gap stores. Every application was online, he said.
Though he owns a desktop computer, Mason canceled his Internet service a few years ago because it was too expensive. The library’s computer, with its 45-minute limit, is the only place where he can apply for jobs.
“It’s a major inconvenience,” Mason said. “I have to take a 20-minute bus from home just to get to the library. Then I come here and there’s a time limit, so I’m racing the clock.”
For job seekers like Mason, it is no longer enough to just look for open positions and submit resumes and cover letters online. They must also have an online presence. Many recruiters, for example, use the social networking site LinkedIn to choose applicants for interviews, said John Crant, a career coach who teaches job readiness workshops at the New York Public Library.
"If there's not more of your story online, your resume ends up in the other stack and you're weeded out of competition," he said. "To be among the population that doesn't have ready access to the Internet is a real disadvantage."
Shamika Woolridge, 33, of the Bronx, relies on library computers to take online classes at Colorado Technical University. She also suffers from cerebral palsy, making it difficult for her to walk the five blocks to the library. If she had Internet at home, she said she would have already completed the online degree she started five years ago. She also could go online to check the grades of her 13-year-old son, Elijah.
“He was missing a whole bunch of assignments," said Woolridge, who lives in a shelter with her three children, ages 13, 10 and 5. "I didn’t even know about [them] because I didn't have Internet."