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.

What evidence supports this strategy?

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.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Increasing broadband access and digital literacy has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are social capital, effective public education, digital access, and employment opportunities.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring social capital in your community: Examine the number of membership associations per 10,000 people and the ratio of residents’ Facebook friends with higher socioeconomic status to their Facebook friends with lower socioeconomic status. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Atlas, respectively.

  • Measuring the effectiveness of public education in your community: Examine the average per-grade change in English Language Arts achievement between the third and eighth grades. These data are available from Stanford University’s Education Data Archive.

  • Measuring digital access in your community: Examine the share of households with broadband access in the home. These data are available through the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Best practices in implementation

  • 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.