The Under-Connected Crisis: Another challenge in the digital divide

The Under-Connected Crisis: Another challenge in the digital divide

It has been more than a year since schools across the country were forced to close their doors to in-person instruction, thrusting us into a new world of distance and hybrid learning. Terms such as “synchronous,” “asynchronous,” “platforms,” and “portals” quickly became part of everyday conversation as our students, families and teachers explored new ways to learn, teach, connect and collaborate digitally. The experiences of this past year have fundamentally changed education, presenting both an opportunity to build on innovations and strengths, and a challenge to ensure every child is able to fully participate in all aspects of learning. 

Reliable and sufficient access to broadband home internet service and devices such as computers or tablets was imperative for full participation in this new world of learning. Yet, for too many children from low-income families, adequate digital access remained out of reach. Within weeks of the announcement of school closures Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in partnership with the San Mateo and Santa Clara County Offices of Education, local foundations and philanthropists, launched the COVID-19 Education Partnership Fund. The fund granted more than $1.5 million to local school districts to support emergency response needs such as Wi-Fi hotspots and internet-connecting devices. These efforts were a tremendous help to families, but new research from New America highlights yet another crisis: having internet connections, but lacking the service or devices sufficient for remote learning – also known as being “under-connected.” 

Funding the research

SVCF provided funding for the study through our early childhood development strategy. We were interested in learning more about how the lack of digital access impacts a family's ability to access care and services. New America conducted the national study with families with children 3 to 13, with emphasis on the experiences of parents and caregivers with children ages 3 to 6 in three specific communities – Detroit, Pittsburgh and Santa Clara County. Our funding allowed New America to conduct focus groups with local low-income families to gather more information on what these families have endured during the COVID pandemic, what they need in terms of internet and device access, what they have learned about their children's learning over the past year while working at home, and their priorities for their children as they return to in-person schooling.

The findings

New America's research found that across the country:

  • Rates of home internet service and computer ownership are up significantly in recent years. But for families with incomes below the national median of $75,000 per year, one in seven children still does not have broadband internet access at home.
  • Twelve percent of children still do not have a computer at home.
  • Fifty-six percent of families with broadband service reported that their service is too slow
  • Fifty-three percent of families reported that this impacted their student’s ability to participate in school.
  • Black and Latinx families, as well as families with incomes below the federal poverty level, were most likely to be “under-connected.”
  • Sixty-five percent of households reported that their children were unable to fully participate in school, and this increased to 75 percent of families headed by immigrant Latinx.

Locally in Santa Clara County, New America found results very similar to the national statistics:

  • Approximately 85 percent of parents interviewed reported computers that ran too slow or didn't work properly
  • Seventy-one percent of families reported that internet service was too slow.
  • Many parents found the community resources and information available through community partners such as Somos Mayfair, Grail Family Service and First 5 Santa Clara to be very helpful, but reported that the process to receive financial aid was long and difficult.
  • Families with young children are concerned about sending their children to school in the fall, and some are considering keeping their children home.

One major takeaway from this study is that the current system of internet access is not serving low-income families. For decades, the economic model of internet access in the United States has been to rely on private sector providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Frontier, to deliver access and offer affordable plans. More recently, those same providers have invested billions of dollars laying fiber networks to speed up service, but nearly all investments have been in high-income communities. This practice, known as digital redlining, has only served to perpetuate existing inequities. We need to continue our advocacy to ensure all families, particularly those in under-resourced ZIP codes, have the access they need to be truly connected.

Improving broadband access for all

The good news is that there is movement for the public sector to invest in improving broadband access by creating municipal broadband networks which are owned and operated by the public sector. Municipal broadband networks have been introduced around the country in recent years, and studieshave shown that residents in those cities with municipal broadband have substantially faster internet, with improved reliability and equitable access. In recent months, the federal government has proposed spending more than $65 billion on building out "middle-mile" infrastructure to allow municipalities to set up their own broadband networks.

Here in California, elected officials across the state are weighing options for public investments in broadband infrastructure. Governor Newsom and the state legislature recently committed $6 billion of California’s historic surplus to this issue. Some of that funding can be used to leverage additional funding for municipal broadband networks, so it’s possible more will be dedicated in the months to come.

Despite the “under-connected” challenges exposed by New America’s report, there is hope that with the right changes, all of California’s children, regardless of race or socio-economic status, will have sufficient broadband service and adequate devices in the home to fully engage in learning. Join our call to ensure every child is fully connected.

In the coming weeks, the California Legislature will consider three bills that will help close the digital divide through broadband access. The bills, AB-14, SB-4 and SB-28 will define the financial and regulatory environment for the build out of municipal broadband networks.

Learn more about those three bills here, and contact your elected representatives to encourage them to support all three bills.