The Digital Divide in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, May 24, 2024

Weekly Digest

The Digital Divide in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of May 20-24, 2024

Grace Tepper

This week, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC (Advancing Justice | AAJC) released two companion reports on how the digital divide and digital literacy are experienced by Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities. While the pandemic heightened awareness of the digital divide and the staggering number of households unable to benefit from digital services and opportunities, AANHPI communities around the nation have been fighting to gain access for years. According to Advancing Justice | AAJC, very few digital divide studies include Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in their analysis. These communities must be identified and prioritized in order to close their digital divides. In these two reports, Advancing Justice | AAJC holistically highlights the needs and barriers of AANHPI communities and sets a path forward in pursuing digital equity in them, as summarized below.

Digital Divide: In the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities

Advancing Justice | AAJC's Digital Divide: In the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities opens by addressing the lack of in-depth analysis of the digital divide in AANHPI communities. Of the studies that do include AANHPIs, many fail to include complete samples of this group and exclude non-English speakers altogether, even though they make up a significant portion of the population. Advancing Justice | AAJC, in partnership with Charter Communications, developed a digital survey to assess how AANHPI communities are connecting to the internet which informed this research. Advancing Justice | AAJC interviewed 2,100 AANHPI individuals via phone and online surveys in English and seven Asian languages about their experiences getting online.

The report emphasizes the importance of establishing relationships between AANHPI communities and trusted organizations and advocates. Advancing Justice | AAJC finds that AANHPI communities are well aware of how broadband internet access can affect quality of life in a variety of ways—healthcare, education, economic opportunity, and more—and even more aware of the barriers preventing full, or any, access for many. Digital equity programming spearheaded by AANHPI leaders is crucial to connecting these communities, as is inclusive language programming which enables full participation by all AANHPI persons.

Key Findings

Advancing Justice | AAJC presents ten major findings:

1. Most of the overall AANHPI population goes online at least once a day, but some subsets of the population have very limited daily connections. Ninety percent of AANHPIs report using the internet or email regularly throughout the day, but 10 percent reported using the internet only once or less a day. Because these individuals may have limited connections, their adoption and optimal use of the internet may lag.

2. Communities still need more devices. More than 10 percent of the population still do not have the right devices at home. One percent of the population still does not have access to any device at all at home. And 11.8 percent of respondents only had access to one device. Additionally, 11 percent only had access to a mobile device such as a smartphone and 6 percent only had access to a desktop or laptop device, limiting the type of internet services they can readily utilize.

3. Most households do have some kind of internet connection at home, but the quality of connection varies. While 90 percent of respondents have some internet connection at home, the speed and capacity varies. Some members of the community still only have mobile and dial-up connections, while one percent do not have any connection at all. The ability to connect to high-speed and high-quality broadband still varies across the population.

4. Many in Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities still lack high-speed internet connections at home. In total, 17 percent of the AANHPI population do not have high-speed internet at home, with 11 percent relying on a dial-up connection and 5 percent only able to access through a mobile phone or tablet connection, and one percent having no internet connection at all. Those with lower annual incomes were less connected to high-speed broadband and were more likely to rely on a mobile connection for internet access.

5. Many are not satisfied with their current internet access. Fourteen percent of AANHPIs reported that their access to reliable and high-speed internet was poor or could be better, and some disclosed that they did not have internet connection at all. Education attainment level was associated with the quality of connection an individual was connected to (i.e. internet speed and capacity).

6. AANHPIs overwhelmingly say that online communication channels for messaging and connecting with others are an important use of the internet; they also find that online financial services and platforms are critically important.

7. While AANHPI communities understand how critical and useful the internet and other technology is, there are still literacy and information gaps that prevent communities from being able to use online services to their full extent. Despite this acknowledgment, fewer respondents expressed confidence in their ability to navigate essential tasks that can be done online.

8. Affordability, lack of computer/tech skills and digital literacy, language barriers, lack of high-speed options, and insufficient devices all pose significant barriers to those trying to improve their digital access. Of the 90 percent of respondents that had internet service at home:

  • 46 percent say lack of computer/technical skills and digital literacy is a problem/barrier; those in rural areas and small towns were more likely to report this was an issue.
  • 41 percent say language access issues are a problem/barrier, with 64 percent of Limited English Proficent (LEP) respondents saying it was an issue. Those who had a language access issue were more likely to also say they also did not have the right devices to access high-speed internet at home.
  • 44 percent say they live in areas where high-speed internet was not available due to lack of infrastructure.
  • 45 percent reported that they did not have access to a device or enough devices in their household to utilize the internet adequately.
  • 53 percent reported that affordability and/or cost of service was a “big program and barrier” or “somewhat a problem and barrier.”

9. Many in AANHPI communities believe that interventions and assistance programs would be helpful. Over 85 percent of respondents say programs and benefits like computer literacy courses, Asian language translations for websites, technical assistance in setting up and fixing devices, subsidized and/or discounted services and devices, and better infrastructure to make high-speed internet service options more widely available could help them overcome some of the barriers preventing them from currently gaining access to high-speed internet service or adoption such service that is available.

10. There are still many in AANHPI communities who are unaware of government connectivity assistance programs, and those who do know about them are still unlikely to successfully enroll. While 53 percent of respondents reported having heard about assistance programs like Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit (the successor to the Affordable Connectivity Program), only 65 percent of those who heard about it successfully signed up for benefits. Many were uncertain about eligibility, did not have the time to find out more about the programs, or needed assistance in completing applications but did not have access to such assistance.

Policy Recommendations

1. Government assistance and intervention programs must prioritize accessible translations for application instructions and forms, live interpreters who can assist in real time, and in-language outreach to ensure AANHPIs who qualify for programs can actually sign up and benefit from them. Almost two in three Limited English Proficient respondents to the survey expressed that language access was a barrier to high-speed internet access. Survey respondents also expressed the need for assistance in signing up for services and the need for in-language materials.

Language access and accessibility is critical to ensuring that Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, once connected to broadband, can get the most out of their experiences online. Government services, grants, and programs must prioritize funding for outreach, education, engagement, marketing, testing, and feedback in non-English languages. English materials must be written in simple English that can be easily translatable. Only native-level speakers with deep knowledge of the community, cultural context, and familiarity with the vernacular should be utilized for translations. Community groups and leaders should be consulted before translations are published to ensure they are actually accessible and understandable to the target audience.

For AANHPI communities, where approximately 34 percent of individuals are limited English proficient (LEP), language access and accessibility are critical in ensuring that community members are able to get the most out of their experience online. This is especially important when it comes to accessing government services and relief programs, yet many existing programs such as ACP and Lifeline only have applications available in English and Spanish.

2. Outreach about assistance programs alone isn’t enough; additional interventions and touchpoints with underserved communities are crucial.

User research and testing, partnerships with community leaders and trusted messengers, real-time interpretation and assistance with completing applications,
and thorough troubleshooting resources throughout the entire process (from initial outreach to purchasing a high-speed internet plan from a provider, to help with technical issues such as unstable connections or outages, to even ending a service) are necessary. AAJC's survey found that many of those who did hear about these programs faced additional barriers to accessing and understanding these services. Trusted community partners can provide services to specifically overcome these barriers.

3. Disaggregated data doesn’t tell the full story, improved research and data regarding AANHPI’s broadband access and adoption is critical.

Survey respondents expressed gaps between what they felt were important internet skills to have and their own level of confidence in using those skills. Digital literacy and empowerment is relatively new in AANHPI communities and while there are organizations working to bridge the digital divide, there are still many unknowns that deter efforts. Few digital divide studies include AANHPIs in their analysis and the few that do often fail to address the needs and challenges that lower-income and non-English speaking groups face. In addition to collecting anecdotal evidence and lived experiences at the community level, more research is needed to understand the needs and challenges that AANHPI communities face in achieving full digital inclusion, including digital literacy and empowerment.

4. Fund digital literacy training, help resources, equipment, and devices in addition to making broadband more affordable.

Access to sufficient devices and to digital literacy training is a critical step to ensure AANHPIs can bridge the adoption gap. Several AANHPI organizations have launched digital skills training to bridge this gap, but a lack of adequate resources, including funding, proper software/hardware, and limited staff time can hinder the growth of these programs. Funding should be allocated to trusted community groups to alleviate the lack of resources, and enable organizations on the ground to meet the demands for digital literacy classes and devices that their communities need.

5. Solutions must be localized and tailored to the precise populations they seek to target.

Even amongst AANHPI and immigrant populations, cultures and lifestyles vary significantly. Funding should be directed to conducting community-based research to better understand the needs of real people and update the needs assessments regularly as populations and situations change. Online training and digital literacy programs need to be facilitated with community groups to make sure they are customized to be most useful for communities. Local organizations are already trusted by communities, have the necessary language skills, and can more effectively promote messages and important information. At every step, policymakers and implementers should convene stakeholders, set guidelines for state and other entities to conduct outreach and research with community leaders, require projects to document engagement with community groups, and directly fund community projects and anchor institutions like schools and libraries.

6. Community organizations need technical skills and training assistance.

For organizations to assist community members through digital programming, they must become experienced and well-versed in different programs, platforms, and benefit systems. Currently, organizations that offer digital services and courses can become overwhelmed answering technical questions and problems that their clients reach out with because they lack the technical expertise to correctly diagnose and address the issue. Companies that provide broadband services or produce equipment, devices, and software can take a more active role by providing instructions, training, and curriculum directly to staff and instructors.

7. Additional research, focus groups, and community-centered engagement is necessary to learn more about the needs, challenges, and nuances AANHPI communities face.

In an area like the digital divide, community-centered engagement is crucial to create spaces for community groups to share best practices and learn from one another. In addition to meeting with other trusted community leaders, organizations need to speak more regularly with corporations and national advocacy groups about the needs and gaps at the grassroots level. Trusted community leaders additionally need to be invited to non-AANHPI spaces so they can better advocate for the digital divide needs of their communities and create solutions for AANHPI communities.

8. Research is needed to measure and assess the effectiveness of programming spearheaded by AANHPI leaders.

To create successful digital literacy programs, we need to understand what factors led to their success and identify areas for improvement. Comprehensive information on how broadband access, devices, and educational programs change individual and community outcomes could provide other organizations looking to pilot or expand existing programs with valuable information. Ultimately, this leads to a better understanding of the problem, developing potential solutions, and replicating successful programs and the funds to conduct this work.

9. Access to sufficient devices is needed to bridge the adoption gap, many communities have yet to implement digital literacy programming because they are focused on ensuring their communities have access to digital tools.

Almost half of survey respondents without high-speed internet access said that the lack of devices was a barrier to access. Many community organizations serve low-income, refugee, or new immigrant communities who do not have the resources or tools necessary to participate in digital literacy programming. Providing community organizations with the devices and equipment they need can alleviate the collection process, allowing them to focus on empowering communities to do more online and build digital skills.

Digital Literacy In the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities

On March 18th, 2021, Advancing Justice | AAJC and Comcast invited 16 community organization leaders with expertise and hands-on experience addressing the digital divide and literacy issues to participate in a digital literacy convening. Leaders met for a large group discussion about how issues related to digital technology and the media more generally affect the communities they serve. Advancing Justice | AAJC's Digital Literacy In the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities  serves as a qualitative companion to its Digital Divide analysis, and delves into the digital skills needs of AANHPI communities.

While both reports highlight the distinct lack of broadband and device access, as well as the language barriers faced by AANHPIs, the digital literacy report emphasizes the effects that digital redlining, systemic cultural barriers, and a lack of internet-enabled opportunities have on AANHPI communities.

Key Findings

Key findings from the Digital Literacy report include:

1. Many AANHPI communities and families are negatively impacted by the Digital Divide. Organization leaders reported on the profound negative impact that the digital divide has on AANHPI communities. Many community members do not have access to the internet or the technology that is necessary to use internet services. Lack of access is a persistent problem that has harmed communities long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and has only gotten worse since.

2. One of the greatest challenges is that families and individuals lack adequate access to devices, software, and other tools that they need.

The digital divide in AANHPI communities is the result of compounding factors. The most common barriers include lack of language access, limited resources and equipment, mistrust and fear of getting online, suspicion of engaging in programs designed to get people online, lack of technical expertise, and a hesitancy to ask for help.

3. Digital literacy training is necessary to ensure individuals are able to access internet services and programs.

Granting access to devices and broadband alone is insufficient, as many are unfamiliar with how to use the technology in an effective and safe way. In addition to securing devices for individuals and families to be able to connect online, there is a need for greater funding and programming to ensure users actually know how to use the devices and online tools.

4. Language, cultural barriers, and personal circumstances make it more difficult for immigrant, refugee, and other non-English proficient communities to participate in programs designed to bridge the digital divide.

Language accessibility is a key barrier to remediating the digital divide in AANHPI communities. Fear and lack of trust can also discourage individuals from getting online. And families and individuals are often preoccupied with other more important priorities, preventing them from spending the time, effort, and resources needed to access the internet; even though broadband access is beneficial, to overextended families it can feel like an additional burden. Attempting to secure access when devices are scarce and connections are unreliable exacerbates stress, pushing many families to give up.

5. Historical redlining, rural regions, and infrastructure must be considered.

For example, in San Francisco's Chinatown, many of the residences are single occupant residence units which are incompatible with wire services like cable and broadband. These residents’ only option may be to connect through wireless devices such as hot spots. Thus, any programs or services that are aimed to serve residents of these communities must tailor solutions to the existing infrastructure.

6. Access to broadband is critical for students to maximize educational opportunities, but AANHPI students face difficulties participating in virtual programs.

According to Asian Americans United, immigrant communities were disproportionately negatively impacted by the transition to virtual schooling at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students from immigrant families tend to have lower distance learning attendance rates because they have a more difficult time receiving the support they need from their schools and technical support to successfully get online and participate in class. Asian Americans United also found that when educational programs moved to virtual sessions, immigrant student attendance decreased dramatically because of slow internet and/or limited devices, making it infeasible to continue participating. The the Advancing Justice | AAJC report, Asian Americans United emphasized that online challenges existed before the pandemic and therefore long-term investments in resources and training are needed to ensure students can continue to have access to educational opportunities when they return to in-person schooling.

7. Economic development and job training programs rely on broadband access.

Community members use tech tools and the internet to learn new skills, improve English proficiency, and apply for economic assistance and benefits. These services became even more important during the pandemic. Broadband access is critical for workforce development opportunities, small business assistance, and other economic support. Many AANHPI community organizations provide job training opportunities and economic support for clients, with several of these programs focused on teaching clients skills like digital literacy.

8. Existing programs are not enough to bridge the gap.

Community members and even leaders are often unaware of what kind of internet/telecommunications programming and assistance is available to constituents. For example, most participants were unaware that their communities could qualify for the Lifeline, Affordable Connectivity Program, and E-Rate programs. While participating organizations at the convening expressed optimism that such programs could be beneficial to their communities, they were also disappointed to realize that they had not received targeted outreach or materials even though they are organizations that provide direct services to the community. Additionally, some individuals are hesitant to sign up for programs because they are uncomfortable sharing their information with agencies or concerned about their citizenship status.

Solutions to the AANHPI Digital Divide

Convening participants unanimously agreed that programs, services, and resources that are designed to bridge the digital divide must meet people where they are and address the specific needs and characteristics of each community. Solutions must be localized and tailored to the precise populations they seek to target. These soltuions include:

Expanding and Replicating Successful Digital Empowerment Programs

Several community organizations are already facilitating limited digital literacy programs for their communities. These include online classes for English learners, digital job skills training, and basic computer classes. Online ESL classes may include providing and administering special software programs that provide services in less accessible languages such as Rohingya. Other programming may be more basic, including the distribution of equipment and simple instructions on how to use the devices, technical assistance and troubleshooting when community members encounter problems with their devices, and beginner-level digital literacy such as setting up an email account. Many of the skills classes are offered in Asian languages, which gives opportunities to individuals who may not be able to participate in local library or school programs because of the language barrier. The demand for classes from AANHPI communities could also be alleviated if existing government, community, and company programs that are currently only offered in English could also be made available in Asian languages.

Expanding Existing Non-Tech Programs to Include Digital Empowerment

While all the organizations that participated in the convening faced digital challenges and needs, many are currently unable to provide direct technology or digital-related resources or programming. None of the participating organizations had a full-time staffer dedicated to working on digital empowerment issues. For many organizations, this is because they are already understaffed and stretched thin with existing programming. Although they understand the critical need for digital empowerment services, they are already struggling to meet the more immediate education, health, civic engagement, immigration, and other urgent needs of the community.

Almost every organization at the convening already offers services and skills training that could be expanded to include digital offerings. These organizations have already built trusted relationships with clients, possess the necessary language and teaching skills, and understand the nuances of the communities that they serve. Equipping them to add digital literacy and empowerment to their services could significantly increase broadband access and literacy for the communities that have the greatest need.

Technical Skills and Support

In order to effectively address the digital divide, community organizations need technical training and assistance. For staff and instructors to teach and assist community members through digital programming, they must become experienced and well-versed in different programs, platforms, changes to benefits, and systems that will benefit clients. Companies that provide broadband services or produce equipment, devices, and software can take a more active role by providing instructions, training, and curriculum directly to staff and instructors. This can alleviate the onus for short-handed organizations to stay up to date and find their own means of learning emerging technologies or the most recent iterations of programs.

Devices and Equipment

Many communities have yet to support digital literacy programming because they are still focused on ensuring clients have access to digital tools. Many of the communities that these groups serve are low-income, refugees, or new immigrants, and therefore, do not possess the resources and tools that they need. Some literacy programs were previously conducted at community centers, organizations’ offices, and local libraries; but the pandemic made it impossible for individuals to attain digital skills without their own devices and connections. Thus, much of the work of community organizations––like the Burmese Rohingya Community of Wisconsin and the Asian Community and Cultural Center––have focused on acquiring, fixing, and setting up devices for clients. Providing community organizations with the devices and other equipment that they need can alleviate the collection process so they can focus on the work of empowering communities to do more online.

Continued Convenings and Shared Learnings

Participants repeatedly expressed that there is a need for regular meetings with other community leaders like this convening to understand the needs across the diverse AANHPI communities and share learnings from effective efforts so others can replicate them. Participants suggested more sustainable infrastructure needs to be built amongst different organizations to continue conversations like this, share best practices with each other, and regularly convene to exchange information. This is particularly critical for a subject like the digital divide which is a relatively newer issue to AANHPI communities and a concern that continues to evolve quickly with the development of the workforce and advancement of technology.

Research and Improved Data

Digital literacy and empowerment work is still relatively new in AANHPI communities. While organizations are working diligently to bridge the divide that harms AANHPIs, there are still many unknowns that deter efforts. There are very few digital divide studies that include AANHPIs in their analysis and the few that do fail to address
the needs and challenges that lower-income and non-English speaking groups face. Too often, AANHPIs are excluded from the data altogether. In addition to collating anecdotal evidence and lived experiences at the community level, more research must be conducted to better understand the unique needs and challenges that AANHPI communities face in achieving digital literacy and empowerment.


All 50 states, as well as U.S. territories, are currently preparing applications for federal support to implement their digital equity plans. Each is considering long-term objectives for closing the digital divide by addressing the needs of traditionally unconnected populations including racial and ethnic minorities. The Advancing Justice | AAJC provides helpful insights to understanding Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities. 

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