Reducing the digital divide with benefits in the event of a pandemic


In summary

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program offers a monthly subsidy for broadband service to eligible households.

By Joseph Hayes

Joseph Hayes is an associate researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, where he studies demographic changes, educational policy and criminal justice issues.

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Darriya Starr

Darriya Starr is a Fellow at the PPIC Higher Education Center and also studies K-12 education policy.

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Niu Gao, Special at CalMatters

Niu Gao is a senior researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, specializing in K-12 education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for universal broadband access. Without reliable high-speed internet, it is difficult for students to attend online classes and for parents to work from home.

Many California households struggle to afford Internet services, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. To help bridge this digital divide, the federal government created the Emergency broadband service program last May.

The program offers a subsidy of up to $ 50 per month for broadband service to eligible households – those earning up to 135% of the federal poverty line (or about $ 35,000 for a family of four) or who are eligible for other federal safety net programs.

The recently adopted Law on investment in infrastructure and employment Extends the Emergency Broadband Benefit indefinitely, with a grant of $ 30 per month. However, preliminary data shows that the program is not reaching many eligible households. Nationally, only about one in five eligible households were enrolled as of October 31. This means that 26 million eligible households do not receive the grant.

California’s 24% participation rate – the percentage of households enrolled in the program out of all eligible households – is slightly higher than that of other various large states, such as Florida (22%), New York (21%) ) and Texas (19%). However, only 9 of California’s 58 counties have participation rates above 50%, and its median participation rate is only 27%. The turnout varies considerably from county to county: it’s only 8% in Marin, Nevada and Sierra counties, while it is effectively 100% in Imperial County and quite a bit. high in Merced (84%) and Kern (77%) counties.

While these low rates are of concern, counties with higher poverty rates tend to have a higher uptake of emergency broadband benefits. This correlation is promising because increased Internet access in very poor countries could stimulate these local economies.

Additionally, populated counties with high poverty rates are more likely to have a greater proportion of households enrolled in the broadband emergency benefit program than smaller counties with similar poverty rates. This indicates that the number of participating households statewide is likely higher than the participation percentages alone suggest. For example, Los Angeles County has a participation rate of 46%, while the participation rate is lower in smaller counties with similar poverty rates, such as Santa Barbara (26%) and Yolo (22%). ).

Several factors contribute to the low participation rate. First, awareness is very low: Nationally, only 23% of adults have heard “a lot” or “a little” about the emergency broadband benefit program. Second, many households can be put off by the multi-step application process, which requires them to go to the government first and then have a participating ISP apply the subsidy. Third, some internet service providers required initially registrants to upgrade their existing data plans to more expensive plans, so some households may have decided not to apply for fear of higher bills if they become ineligible or the program ends.

There are several ways to improve the emergency broadband benefit program:

  • Use existing networks and systems to increase awareness. Federal, state and local governments could work with community organizations – trusted messengers in historically marginalized communities – to raise awareness. They could also explore ways to automatically notify and / or enroll eligible households through the Federal Communications Commission ‘s current grant program, other safety net programs, and school lunch programs.
  • Streamline the application process and service delivery. Leveraging existing data, resources and information channels could simplify registration. the pandemic-EBT The map, used to supplement household food budgets, is a template for providing much-needed support that households can use with any participating Internet service provider.
  • Limit broadband costs to households to a percentage of income. The emergency broadband grant does not cover all broadband costs, which average $ 68 / month nationwide and may increase with new technology. Policymakers might consider replicating the design of existing housing subsidy programs, which cover costs above a percentage of household income.

Bridging the digital divide is essential to improve educational and economic opportunities. While the investments recently approved by the State Short-term strategies such as emergency broadband delivery are also needed to fill current gaps, intended to narrow this gap in the long term.


Julio V. Miller