Broadband access and digital skills

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.
Target Population
Community-wide, Adults and families
Key Stakeholders
Mayor or County Executive's Office, Public Utility, Superintendent's Office, Nonprofit Partner, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Strong

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.

How do broadband access and digital skills impact economic mobility?

  • Boosting incomes and employment: Many broadband programs are part of broader workforce development strategies. Increasing broadband access is associated with regional economic growth, higher incomes, and lower unemployment rates.
  • Protecting student achievement: Unreliable broadband service is associated directly with diminished K-12 educational outcomes, including lower GPAs and lower rates of homework completion. A lack of high-quality home internet service is also indirectly associated with reduced SAT scores, a lower likelihood of post-secondary enrollment, and pursuit of STEM careers.
  • Improving physical and mental health: Broadband access is associated with a wide range of positive physical and mental health outcomes (primarily as a result of telehealth services), especially among low-income residents, mobility-limited residents, and residents of rural communities.

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.