The Federal Communications Commission issued a report on Tuesday announcing a sizeable increase to broadband internet access in homes across the country. But, Latinos, it showed, aren't keeping pace.
The report finds that 7 million Americans have access to broadband technologies now that didn't have access a year prior. Still, the FCC admits that internet service is not being deployed in a "reasonable and timely fashion" to some 19 million Americans who remain without access — including a large share of Latinos.
"The U.S. has now regained global leadership in key areas of the broadband economy, including mobile, where we lead in mobile apps and 4G deployment," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "But in this flat, competitive global economy, we need to keep driving toward faster broadband and universal access," he added.
Hispanics are more likely than whites or Asians to be in an area without access to broadband, the report says. But, the bigger issue for Latinos is "not access to broadband, but adoption of broadband," according to Jason Llorenz, the executive director of an internet advocacy group called the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP).
Llorenz argues that while a large portion of Latinos are in areas where broadband is accessible, a disproportionate number don't have working connections in their homes, in comparison to whites and Asian Americans. In fact, according to the most recent estimates from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, only 45.2% of Latinos had a broadband connection at home in October of 2010, in contrast to the 49.9% of African Americans, 68.3% of whites, and 68.8% of Asians that were connected. In comparison, 42% of the general American population had an internet connection in their homes ten years prior, in August of 2000, according to another report from the same agency. In other words, Latinos may be lagging the general population by almost a decade when it comes to broadband at home.
Latinos whose primary language is Spanish or recently immigrated to the United States are less likely to have a home internet connection, according to various studies conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center in recent years. "Many studies have shown that the main barriers to broadband adoption for Latinos is relevance and cost," Llorenz said. "But as costs come down dramatically what we really have to think about is how to tackle the question of relevance." Paradoxically, perhaps, Hispanics have had no trouble finding the "relevance" of social media and smartphone technology. In fact, recent Pew studies indicate that English-speaking Latinos outpace whites in smartphone adoption and use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Some experts believe that higher smartphone adoption in the Latino community is not a contradiction at all, but rather, an effect of lower broadband access. Smartphones, they say, have become a replacement.
So if Latinos are accessing social media and using their smartphones so much why should we care about falling behind in broadband access?
Elianne Ramos — spokesperson for Latinos in Social Media (LATISM) and a Latina social media queen herself (with almost 30,000 Twitter followers) — is the first to note that a smartphone isn't a perfect substitute for a home internet connection and social media won't provide for every need.
"We must look at what Latinos are using mobile technology for. Only a small percentage are using it as a powerful learning tool. Most are using it only for social interactions and entertainment," Ramos said. Only certain kinds of information are easily consumable through a smartphone. Health information, news, and job applications, for example, might be better accessed from a home computer than from the small screen. Above all, however, both Ramos and Llorenz believe that Latinos must close the broadband access divide so that they can participate in a booming multi-billion dollar tech industry. Ramos says Latinos cannot become creators of digital content without adopting broadband technologies.
Less than one percent of the tech entrepreneurs who received venture capital in the first half of last year are Latino, Llorenz estimated based on a study by research firm CB insights.
"Tech is the future of our economy. It's not in the manufacturing sector anymore. That means in order to thrive, Latinos have to be prepared to participate in those opportunities and create jobs for ourselves in that sector," Llorenz said.
"The Instagram guys just sold their company and made a billion dollars," he added. "The question in my mind right now is, 'How do we get our students to be the next Instagram guys?'"