Strategy overview

  • Subsidizing internet, technology access: Initiatives that seek to provide low-income families with broadband internet access often consist of in-home hardware installation and the provision of internet service at a partially or fully subsidized rate. Some programs are more comprehensive, and may include hardware subsidies (like discounted laptops) and digital skills classes.
  • A range of goals, from school to healthcare: Internet and technology programs can be incorporated into a wide range of broader programs. These can include education (connecting students to remote learning), public health (helping residents access telehealth services), workforce development (supporting residents employment needs such as applying for jobs, conducting interviews, and researching opportunities) and more.
  • Supplementing broadband with hardware and digital skills: Many broadband initiatives include additional components beyond internet access; they typically focus on closing the digital divide. This can include connecting residents to subsidized devices, like laptops, tablets, and phones, access to software, and digital skills workshops.
  • Often delivered through public-private partnerships: Across the country, broadband access initiatives have been managed by local governments, school districts, internet providers, community-based organizations, and more. Some successful models are administered by partnerships between several groups.

Multiple studies and meta-analyses demonstrate the positive impacts of expanding broadband access on a range of economic mobility outcomes. However, further research is needed on digital skills and access programs.

  • A 2016 White House Council of Economic Advisers analysis highlights a range of positive outcomes associated with increased broadband access, including better labor market outcomes when using online searches, faster re-employment for unemployed individuals, increased access to higher quality health care, and increased civic engagement.

  • A 2016 meta-analysis on programs providing students with laptops found improved student performance in English, writing, math, and science. The analysis also found an association with improved teaching and learning processes.

  • A 2020 analysis on expanding broadband access in rural communities found it can be associated with increased job and population growth, higher rates of new business formation, and lower unemployment rates.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure it addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in broadband access and digital skills. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in this strategy. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Digital skillsPercentage of individuals demonstrating proficiency on a performance assessment that measures digital skills required for workforce success, such as the Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments assessment within the Education & Skills Online assessment suite, which can be used by researchers and institutions to gather individual-level results based on OECD Survey of Adult Skills domains.

  • Access to technology: Percentage of individuals who have both (1) access to at least one desktop or laptop computer owned by someone in the home and (2) reliable broadband Internet.

  • Eliminate financial and physical barriers: Prioritize interventions capable of addressing both physical and cost barriers to broadband access. Within a single community, some households may lack appropriate infrastructure (like wiring), while others may determine that the cost of the internet is too high. Many face both challenges at once.
  • Leverage local partnerships: Collaborate with partners across sectors, including local businesses, public and private internet providers, nonprofits, school administrators, and more. Partners may contribute a variety of functions, including fundraising, community engagement and recruitment, customer service, and, in the case of internet providers, broadband access itself.
  • Identify a relatively narrow target population: Prior to program launch, clearly identify a specific target population (i.e. families with low-incomes, high school students, etc.) and set concrete eligibility criteria (such as free/reduced price-lunch recipients, TANF, etc.). Doing so informs program cost, additional staffing needs, and scale of and strategies for recruitment campaigns. Once identified, incorporate recruitment for broadband access initiatives into larger community engagement and trust-building efforts.
  • Invest in customer service: Prioritize investment in robust customer service capacity, including hiring additional customer service representatives who can answer questions in real time for new clients, and technicians to install routers rapidly and at scale.