Lack of broadband infrastructure continues to hamper student access

The pandemic spurred widespread investments in improving connectivity for students, but there is still progress to be made in ensuring all children have the devices and internet access they need at home to fully participate in their education, according to new research from the Public Policy Institute of California.

From federal programs in broadband affordability and infrastructure to state initiatives that distributed devices and established WiFi hotspots — as well as numerous local initiatives to boost access — far more California households with schoolchildren have access than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, researchers found that the expansion of broadband infrastructure has proven more challenging than handing out devices to students in need, but it is critical that children have both.

“We found that a lack of infrastructure and a lack of affordability where infrastructure does exist are the key barriers to universal broadband access,” PPIC research associate and report co-author Joseph Hayes said in an Oct. 28 webinar detailing the findings of the report. “Our findings suggest that securing reliable internet tends to be a more persistent challenge than reliable access to a computing device.”

The Imperial County Office of Education was highlighted in the report for its best practices. About 20 years ago, the Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority — a collaborative of 35 agencies including K–12 school districts, city governments, the Imperial COE, Imperial Community College and San Diego State University — established a fiber optic network to provide network and internet services to over 120 educational and public agencies throughout the county. In 2017, the county launched a pilot program to create an off-campus LTE network to bring high-speed wireless connectivity to students in local school districts.

Districts and county offices looking to provide broadband access in their own communities should take advantage of new or expanded funding sources, but money isn’t the only factor to consider.

“There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution here. I think we really need to be open to many approaches,” said Luis Wong, Imperial COE chief technology officer. “Money is an important factor, but in a state like California in which we’re so diverse in terms of geography, which is a huge challenge, [and where] weather is a huge challenge as we just experienced week … I think we have to look at this broadly.”

According to the report, which draws on data from the US Census Bureau, device access rose dramatically early in the pandemic, particularly among low-income households, households without a bachelor’s degree, and Black and Latino households. Improvements in internet access were more modest, and also strongest among low-income households and households without a bachelor’s degree.

Progress stalled as more students returned to in-person learning in spring, however, and significant equity gaps remain. About 41 percent of low-income households still do not have full digital access — access to both internet and a device — nor do 37 percent of Latino households and 29 percent of Black households.

Achieving digital equity

It is crucial that policymakers at every level continue the momentum to secure full digital access for every student. The state has created the Broadband Action Plan, with three long-term goals: all Californians have high-performance broadband available at home, schools, libraries and businesses; all Californians have access to affordable broadband and the devices necessary to access the internet; and all Californians can access training and support to enable digital inclusion.

To help reach these goals, researchers recommend:

  • Improving data collection to develop more-granular mapping tools. Schools could play an important role in collecting data on actual usage and speed.
  • Providing annual reports on student access to the internet both in school and at home as part of overall state accountability efforts.
  • Assessing the need for continued internet subsidies for low-income households — a topic currently up for discussion in Congress as part of an infrastructure package that could renew these temporary programs. State leaders should also develop recommendations for the best path forward if or when federal subsidies expire.

Coordinating efforts by federal, state and local stakeholders. Service providers, public and private agencies and community organizations can work together to leverage funding opportunities and scale up effective innovations, while the state and the philanthropic community can develop a network to share best practices from local programs that have successfully provided home internet access to students.