Latinos in the US do not benefit from the same level of broadband internet connectivity, access to digital devices and digital skills as the rest of the population, and are at a considerable disadvantage when compared to their white counterparts. However, the digital gap or divide, as the issue is commonly termed, is difficult to assess given apparent inconsistencies in data reporting. Understanding this digital divide is necessary for Latino serving organizations to better target their efforts in bridging the gap.
Two sources of data are at the core of this issue, a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center and the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), an ongoing yearly survey by the Census Bureau to provide vital information about the nation and its people. The Pew survey is a sample of the US population that takes into account gender, age, race, and others in the same way as the 10-year US Census. Pew’s methodology ensures that its respondents are representative of the country’s population as counted by the Census. Both the ACS and the Pew survey report data on the digital divide. Specifically, they report on broadband connectivity and device usage by household, both widely accepted measures of digital access. Additionally, both the Pew survey and the ACS tables report on internet connectivity based on income level as well as educational attainment.
Latino serving organizations have noted that although both sources present data on the same issue, the results are not the same. ACS data reports that 92.8% of the US white population is connected to broadband internet while the rate for Latinos is 91.9%, meaning a gap of less than one percentage point between the two groups. The Pew survey reports that 80% of whites are connected to broadband internet while only 65% of Latinos are, meaning a gap of 15%.
This disparity in reporting is due to differences on how the Pew survey and the ACS tables define broadband connectivity. While Pew’s survey asked about home broadband connectivity in the context of a high-speed internet connection for a home-based device only (desktop or laptop device and fixed broadband connection), ACS data bundles that characteristic with internet connections available through cellphone data plans. Yet, mobile data plans do not always meet the standards for broadband internet connection and may present issues such as data caps and lower stability of the connection. The result is an apparent overestimation of reliable home broadband connectivity when looking at ACS data.
Both ACS data, as available on data.census.gov, and Pew data disaggregate device ownership data by type of device. ACS data tables, however, do not disaggregate those who use only a smartphone to connect to the internet by race and ethnicity. Because the Pew Research Center survey does, it offers a clue into the perceived disparities in digital gap reporting.
The two sets of data agree on the gap in laptop or desktop ownership between Latinos and whites. While the ACS states that the number of whites and Latinos who own a home computing device is 81.1% and 68.9% respectively, Pew data estimates those numbers at 80% and 67%. This indicates a gap of roughly 12% to 13% in home computing access between Latinos and whites.
There is no significant gap in smartphone ownership between the two groups, according to both sources. However, there are significant differences in the extent to which each group relies on smartphones as the main method to connect to the internet. Pew data estimates that of those who own a smartphone, 12% of whites and 25% of Latinos use it as their sole method of connecting to the internet, meaning a gap of 13%. This is similar to the gap in laptop or desktop computer ownership between whites and Latinos identified in the previous paragraph.
Latinos are more likely to rely on a smartphone for internet connectivity, and the lack of a laptop or desktop computer at home might be one of the factors behind this issue. While mobile connections might be the only alternative in remote areas without access to infrastructure, fixed broadband connection when available is the best tool to improve digital access as it tends to be faster, more reliable, and convenient, allowing for multiple devices to connect simultaneously. Those households that rely only on cellphone data connections may be at a disadvantage to perform activities such as telework or to fully access virtual education opportunities.
Finally, piecing together Pew data and comparing it with 2021 ACS data shows that the two sources agree on the overall digital access divide. Pew estimates that roughly 80% of whites have access to broadband through a home computing device, and 12% only through a smartphone, adding up to 92% with access to broadband internet. In turn, 65% of Latinos have access to broadband through a home device, while 25% have access through a smartphone, adding up to 90% having access to broadband. The gap between the two groups, according to Pew, stands at 2%. 2021 ACS data tables, which already combine both types of access, estimate high speed internet access to be 93.3% to 92.4% for whites and Latinos, respectively, meaning a gap of 0.9%. The difference in gaps of 1.1% falls within Pew’s margin of error, meaning that there is virtually no difference between the two estimates.
Additional research is needed to better understand the digital divide between Latinos and whites. According to these interpretations, Latinos lag behind considerably in access to broadband through a home-based computer. Estimates of total broadband access that include access through cellular networks hide the fact that desktop devices and fixed broadband internet are superior in accessing needs like healthcare and education. Research ought to focus on the reasons for this disparity and highlight policies that increase the share of Latinos with access to home-based broadband access and computers.
Federal policy is already pivoting towards this approach through programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program by the Federal Communications Commission. In addition to offering a discount of up to $30 per month for lower income households to pay their high-speed internet bills, the benefit also provides a one-time discount of up to $100 towards the purchase of a digital device. By addressing both the internet and home device gap simultaneously, this benefit can address the roots of the digital gap that affects a significant share of the US Latino community.
This blog post is part of Aspen Latinos’ efforts to support Digital Inclusion Week, a nationwide activation between October 2 and 6 to bring awareness to activities that help ensure all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Consider using the hashtag #DIW2023 to amplify the message of building connected communities and making accessible internet a right, not a privilege.