Significant inroads made in addressing the digital divide, but progress is slowing

Gaps remain in broadband access among Californians, but the latest data show local, state and federal efforts to bridge the digital divide have made significant progress since the onset of the pandemic — especially among students.

Two new fact sheets from the Public Policy Institute of California provide snapshots of broadband access both among the overall population and in education.

Using data from 2020–22, researchers found that among families with K-12 students, low-income households and those headed by someone without a bachelor’s degree experienced significant gains in reliable access to both devices and internet. Black and Latino K-12 households also saw dramatic increases in device access but made no gains in internet access.

The share of K-12 households with reliable access to a computer device rose from 68 percent to 82 percent from spring to fall 2020, as most local educational agencies settled into distance learning. Gains in reliable access to internet service moved at a slower pace, increasing from 71 percent to just 75 percent. “This reflects the challenges of reaching households in remote areas that do not have internet infrastructure and low-income households in crowded urban areas that cannot afford reliable internet,” researchers wrote.

District efforts paid off, but challenges remain

Several LEAs including Fresno Unified School District, Lindsay USD, Imperial County Office of Education and Ventura COE launched local initiatives before and during the pandemic to provide their students with internet access. Fresno USD, for example, partnered with private industry experts and used Nokia cell equipment to launch a private LTE network serving students across southwest and southeast Fresno, where access and quality of connectivity has lacked. Towers were installed on 15 school sites to support up to 10,000 users in the neighborhoods around 25 schools. Only students with district-issued hotspots are able to access the internet connection.

California also established several public–private partnerships to secure devices for students, and districts across the state outfitted school buses with WiFi to park in areas where more students without internet access lived, partnered with internet service providers or built their own cellular towers. LEAs also used more than $15 billion across three rounds of federal stimulus funding to provide more than 2 million devices and nearly 1 million connections to students in need during the 2020–21 school year.

Despite these efforts, with children now back to in-person learning, the urgency to close the divide has stalled. According to researchers, the share of households with school children that have access to both a computing device and an internet connection for educational purposes increased from 60 percent in spring 2020 to 69 percent in fall 2020 but hung at just 71 percent in spring 2021.

Currently, full digital access continues to remain lower among Latino (63 percent), Black (71 percent) and low-income households with K-12 students (59 percent). “The persistence of these gaps may reflect the longer-term, capital-intensive challenge of providing broadband access, compared to the relative simplicity of distributing mobile devices,” researchers wrote.

Looking ahead

Senate Bill 156, a $6 billion investment in middle-mile ($3.25 billion) and last-mile ($2 billion) broadband infrastructure signed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, is expected to significantly advance efforts to connect all Californians. Additionally, more than 400 districts across the state have applied for the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund since summer 2021, providing devices to 1.2 million students and connecting about 900,000 youth to broadband during the 2021–22 school year. The FCC recently extended the service delivery date to June 2023.