It is no secret in 2023 that access to the internet is a critical component of managing our lives. Every aspect of our day-to-day – health, education, work – increasingly turns virtual and, increasingly, the need to be connected and staying online becomes the quintessential need. The federal government recognizes that a broadband connection is no longer a luxury, but a necessity on par with running water and electricity, and is investing accordingly. In 2021, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) received $48 billion for the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure and the development of digital equity plans around the country. Decades after the construction of the national interstate system, a new virtual network is being built to connect the nation.
This initiative, coupled with programs like the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides free or low-cost, high-speed internet for low-income households, is helping to ensure that communities are more interconnected. And these initiatives are timely. Despite recent progress, minorities, particularly Latinos, face significant inequity in access to the internet.
Digital inequity, however, takes its most poignant form in the lack of access to home computing with broadband access, a topic discussed in our previous blog. Given that Latinos already have access to the internet through their phones at the same rates as the rest of Americans, one of the remaining barriers to digital opportunity is a glaring device inequity, in which 15% fewer Latinos than Whites have access to desktop computing in the US. This inequity is significant because, despite the enormous advances in mobile device computing we’ve become used to over the last couple of decades, desktop computing today still holds significant advantages in capability over mobile devices – many features and applications are simply not practical or accessible on a mobile phone as they are on a laptop or desktop computer. In other words, despite being connected to the internet at roughly the same rates, there is a capability gap between Latinos and the rest. In turn, this gap could help cement existing inequities in health and education outcomes as both fields become increasingly digitized.
Education took a digital leap forward during and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when classrooms around the country entered our homes and lessons became virtual. This trend was never fully scaled back to pre-pandemic norms, and for good reason, given that online-based educational resources can bring important benefits. But this trend does leave those without a proper connection behind. A survey of Hispanic Serving Institutions found that only 79% of students had an optimal combination of mobile and computer devices with broadband access, and that low-income and Black students were less likely to have this level of connectivity. And while it is true that campus services like libraries and computer labs exist to connect students, still 20% of students reported that their lack of connectivity affected their ability to perform in their classes. The study also identified that Latino students and those of two or more races were more likely to report problems accessing live lectures.
Healthcare is an industry that, like education, is quickly migrating online. And although telemedicine’s rise was precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been gaining traction among providers and patients alike well before 2020. Today, access to digital healthcare resources is as important as ever. In 2021, 37% of adults in the US used telemedicine in some way, and most interestingly, use of telemedicine increased with age, and was more prevalent among women. But, in keeping with other trends, Latinos are the group least likely to use telemedicine. Only about 33% of Latinos report using virtual consultations as opposed to roughly 39% of non-Hispanic Whites. Access to digital connectivity is considered a “super determinant” of health, so much that it has been identified as an effective way to treat depression, diabetes, and hypertension.
Some of the disparity in the use of telemedicine between Latinos and other demographics could be explained by the device gap, and in the same way that lacking full device connectivity for Latino students at Hispanic colleges meant affected grades, lacking a device to properly connect to and communicate with a healthcare provider could result in affected health outcomes. Part of the formula for connecting Latino communities fully, as detailed in our Aspen Principles for Latino Digital Success, is not only to facilitate communities’ access to broadband internet but to also connect households to capable computing devices that can serve all of their digital needs. The ACP program recognizes that without a device, connectivity is incomplete, and provides a one-time discount of $100 per household towards the purchase of a digital device, including laptops and desk computers. Digital equity programs like the ACP are on target by not solely addressing broadband internet access but also tackling device affordability, a critical issue that cannot be overlooked to successfully bridge the digital gap. Internet use among Latinos has been on the rise for years, but still today we run the risk of further entrenching inequities in education and health outcomes if Latinos continue to lag behind in access to updated and relevant devices necessary to benefit from the full spectrum of services available online today.
Finally, while high-speed internet and digital devices provide the infrastructure for digital opportunity, digital skills training can not be left out of the equation: the usefulness of a digital device is as good as the user’s skills. In a future article, we will explore the digital skills gap and its ramifications for millions of Latino workers and small business owners. Still, broadband internet and digital device access and affordability constitute the foundations for a more digitally equitable society and economy. As such, they can no longer be neglected by decision-makers in the public, corporate, and nonprofit sectors committed to ensuring equal access to opportunity for all.
This article is part of Aspen Latinos’ efforts to support the Federal Communications Commission- Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federal benefit that provides eligible households with up to $30/month for internet bills. Visit GetInternet.gov to find out how eligible families can sign up, get connected, and save.
 Bell, T.; Aubele, J.W.; Perruso, C. Digital Divide Issues Affecting Undergraduates at a Hispanic-Serving Institution during the Pandemic: A Mixed-Methods Approach. Educ. Sci. 2022, 12, 115. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci12020115
 Lucas JW, Villarroel MA. Telemedicine use among adults: United States, 2021. NCHS Data Brief, no 445. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2022. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.15620/cdc:121435
 Truong, M., Yeganeh, L., Cook, O., Crawford, K., Wong, P., & Allen, J. (2022). Using telehealth consultations for healthcare provision to patients from non-Indigenous racial/ethnic minorities: a systematic review