The Latino digital divide
November 11, 2011
This week, I will be leading a panel in Chicago for LATISM – an online community of Latinos in Social Media, as a part of their annual conference. LATISM is made up of thousands of Latino social media participants — bloggers, tweeters, and online conversants who use social media to build community online under the hashtag, #LATISM. The talk will explore the Latino digital divide – an opportunity to engage a group of the community’s digital elite in HTTP’s work of evangelizing digital literacy and supporting policies focused on closing the digital divide.
The LATISM conference is a somewhat ironic venue for a talk about the digital divide. After all, the most digitally literate, active, and Internet-astute of the Latino digerati make up this online community. But beyond LATISM members lay a complex story about Latinos and their relationships with the Internet and the digital tools that drive so much of the future of economic opportunity.
Latinos are widely recognized as leading technology adopters – from mobile phones and devices to tablet computers, Latinos lead Americans in purchasing, and using this technology for some reasons we understand, and others we are just beginning to. Despite these facts, the digital divide yet to be addressed is in two areas: First, there is an access and tools issues — the dramatically lower rate Latinos report in adopting broadband at home, and second, in the community’s level of digital literacy – the digital skills that will facilitate economic opportunity and advancement in the new economy.
Defining the Latino Digital Divide
The Latino digital divide is not simply about being connected to the Internet. It is about the community’s ability to leverage the Internet and digital tools for economic and social advancement. To do so, the community must be digitally literate – something harder to define than the statistics on connectivity.
Literacy, digital and otherwise, comes in so many forms – and Hispanics’ relationship with the Internet and digital skills is complex. Researchers Shapiro and Hasset report: “80% of Latinos view the Internet as important for economic opportunity and ‘keeping up with the times,’ compared to 65% of Whites.” This would lead us to believe that the community values the Internet and understands its power to create opportunity. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 51 percent of Hispanics access the Internet via a mobile device, while only 33 percent of whites do. The mobile platform has proven to be an accessible “on-ramp” to the Internet; Latinos are adopting mobile technology, and using it for access. This is one reason we support private sector opportunities to extend high-speed next-generation wireless broadband, or 4G/LTE across the country, which, as the technology matures, will offer connectivity at speeds that rival home broadband.
In contrast to the discussion of mobile, Latinos remain on the wrong side of an ongoing divide in home broadband adoption – only 45 percent have home broadband access, compared to 52 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of whites, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Those numbers may or may not shock – but when we look more closely at the FCC’s numbers, we see that only 20 percent of Spanish-dominant Latinos, who tend to be less affluent and more recent immigrants, have adopted home broadband. Survey participants who were non-adopters cited lack of perceived value of the Internet and price as primary reasons for not adopting. That lack of home access relegates resume-building, job applications and other activity, in most cases, to school time or library time, while their counterparts may work on these at their leisure, as a family, in their homes. The FCC and industry has been working to drive solutions to this problem, first through the Comcast program that brought $9.99 Internet and a $149 computer to families with a child qualified for free school lunch, and, just this week, other cable providers, including Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and others, joined with a similar offering that will extend this opportunity across more markets around the country. These programs hold exciting potential for closing the gap and putting high-speed Internet tools into the hands of families lagging behind.
A Simple Question – Can My Digital Skills Help Feed My Family?
Connectivity is only part of the discussion. Focusing on the question of what one can do with the Internet is key. Looking at the numbers overall, the Latino digital divide can be confused, as many say, rightly, “I have the Internet on my phone,” and soon, the new, low-cost cable opportunities may begin to close the access gap for poor families. Fact is, the numbers show that mobile is already providing a lifeline to small businesses, connecting people, and helping families to save money – and the new cable programs will further drive down barriers to home broadband as well. But to assess digital literacy, the question to ask is, “can you leverage your online skills to get a job or run a business that will feed your family?”
The national unemployment rate in the middle of 2011 was 8.8 percent, yet the rate for Hispanics was 11.3 percent – about 43 percent higher than the 7.9 percent unemployment rate among whites, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics. We know that the grand majority of today’s good jobs – and an even larger portion of them in the future – will be those created by the digital economy. One’s ability to Bing or Google something is among the most basic expectations of an entry-level job. But real money can be made by people who can manage a spreadsheet or database program, program HTML – and, more and more, those who can develop and manage social media tools to move the bottom line or get traction for an idea or brand.
To be ready for those jobs, and to build the wealth-creating businesses of the future, communities must be online and ready to use the Internet across platforms. That means access to the tools must include a focus on learning how to use them productively. The iPhone puts a high-powered mini-computer in one’s hand; a tablet is a touch-screen window to the world. But use them only for games and sports scores, and these tools may as well be a pillow in the dessert – comforting, but not so life-enhancing.
Look To The Future
Economies change. The transition from farm to manufacturing took decades. The digital revolution is happening at Internet speed. The digital divide threatens to leave large portions of the Latino community in the last century, without the skills to fully benefit from the opportunities of the future.
The app market, for example, was an $8 billion ecosystem this year – and is only in its infancy. The Latino developers, marketers and digital entrepreneurs of the future have an opportunity to participate in this marketplace and create wealth. If there is an economic movement toward digital literacy, it must involve the opportunities created by this open marketplace where a 99-cent app that catches fire can drive dollars to its inventor and investors, or people to any cause.
Are you listening #occupiers?
Investment of time and resources in Latino digital literacy, powered by a high speed Internet connection provides opportunities in all of its forms – wireless, and wired interfaces, by laptop, iPhone, desktop or iPad – Latinos must be prepared to leverage the tools to build wealth and participate in the changing economy.
Those future opportunities include helping to address some of the most important, ongoing social problems. Many of the top thinkers in the field believe, for example, that broadband can reduce the cost of delivering high-quality healthcare, especially in rural areas where the closest hospital may be more than 100 miles away. With broadband Internet, doctors can provide timely diagnoses through remote consultations, saving patients the time and expense of traveling to the doctor’s office. Emerging mobile health and distance healthcare technology offer a significant opportunity to address the health disparities facing the most vulnerable, rural and mobile Latino communities. But will Latino entrepreneurs and health providers be a part of creating these revolutionary healthcare offerings?
Minority digital entrepreneurship is one key to long-term economic recovery and creating wealth. Investment of time, energy and community focus on digital skills building is not only a matter of economic necessity, but key to longevity for America’s fastest growing community.
The challenges are real and so is the potential to ensure American prosperity. LATISM is at the head of the curve on this – and now we must all work to ensure policymakers recognize the importance of supporting digital literacy to fuel innovation and drive America’s economic recovery.
Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. is Executive Director of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP).