At 7 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Isabella and Tony Ruiz were standing in their usual homework spot, on a crumbling sidewalk across the street from the elementary school nearest to their home.
“I got it. I’m going to download,” Isabella said to her brother Tony as they connected to the school’s wireless hot spot and watched her teacher’s math guide slowly appear on the cracked screen of the family smartphone.
Isabella, 11, and Tony, 12, were outside the school because they have no Internet service at home – and connectivity is getting harder. With their mother, Maria, out of work for months and money coming only from their father, Isaias, who washes dishes, the family had cut back on almost everything, including their cellphone data plan.
So every weeknight, the siblings stood outside the low-slung school, sometimes for hours, to complete homework for the sixth grade.
“There’s just no funds left,” Maria Ruiz said later outside the family’s white clapboard rental home. “It worries me because it will become more important to have Internet when they have to do more homework.”
With many educators pushing for students to use resources on the Internet with class work, the federal government is now grappling with a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed Internet at home and an estimated 5 million families who are without it and who are struggling to keep up.
The challenge is felt across the nation. Some students in Coachella, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala., depend on school buses that have free Wi-Fi to complete their homework. The buses are sometimes parked in residential neighborhoods overnight so that children can connect and continue studying. In cities like Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, where as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband, children crowd libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots.
The divide is driving action at the federal level. Members of the Federal Communications Commission are expected to vote next month on repurposing a roughly $2 billion-a-year phone subsidy program, known as Lifeline, to include subsidies for broadband services in low-income homes.
“This is what I call the homework gap, and it is the cruelest part of the digital divide,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the commission who has pushed to overhaul the Lifeline program.
Rosenworcel cited research showing that 7 in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires Web access. Yet one-third of kindergartners through 12th graders in the United States, mostly from low-income and rural households, are unable to go online from home. The Obama administration announced in July its own program to help address the problem, deploying free and affordable broadband into public housing.
The Lifeline plan has drawn strong criticism from the two Republicans among the five FCC commissioners, and from some lawmakers, who say the program, which was introduced in 1985 to bring phone services to low-income families, has been wasteful and was abused.
In 2008, when the commission added subsidies for mobile-phone services to discounts for landlines, some homes started double-billing the program, and the budget for the fund ballooned. Various investigations, including a government review in early 2015, questioned the effectiveness of the phone program and whether the commission had done enough to monitor for abuse.
But advocacy groups for children and minorities have backed the FCC plan, saying it will be important in preventing students from falling further behind their peers.
Few places better illustrate the challenges faced by students without broadband than McAllen, in south Texas, and the surrounding area in the Rio Grande Valley. Poverty rates in the region are high. In some towns, as many as 40 percent of households have no access to the Internet, among the lowest access rates in the country, according to a 2014 study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Brigida Castro, who lives in a concrete home off a one-lane road in the town of Donna, said the main local Internet provider had told her it could not bring service to her street. Her daughter, Perla, 16, is a junior at a high school in the South Texas Independent School District geared toward directing students into medical professions. The school district has put Wi-Fi on more than 100 school buses to help students who do not have access at home, and Perla relies on school bus rides — nearly three hours a day — to finish homework.
“I could go home on a shorter bus route, but I want to get A’s,” Perla said.
Marla Guerra, superintendent of the school district, said that it had little choice but to require more technology in class work, even though many families did not have broadband access.
“We try to accommodate those without access in every way we can,” she said, “but we can’t hold back on our use of technology in the classrooms because we have to prepare our children for the world that is waiting for them.”
In McAllen Independent School District, which has 33 schools and 25,000 students, each location runs wireless hot spots 24 hours a day so that students can sit in parking lots or crouch against school walls to do homework into the night.
Some municipalities are trying other solutions. The city of Pharr, with the help of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has proposed using local tax funds to bring Internet service to all homes and to put free hot spots around town.
But the biggest boon would be the Lifeline overhaul.
“This is a population tailor-made for this FCC plan,” said Jordana Barton, a community development director for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “Lack of broadband has inhibited their ability to participate in the economy, and over and over, what I see is the homework divide that is keeping children behind.”