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Blog Post · February 21, 2024

Testimony: California’s K–12 Digital Divide Has Narrowed, but Access Gaps Persist

photo - Elementary Students at Desks in Classroom

PPIC senior fellow Niu Gao testified before the Assembly Education Committee on “Meeting the Post-Pandemic Academic, Well-Being, and Technology Needs of California Students” on February 21, 2024. Here are her prepared remarks.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. My name is Niu Gao, and I am a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. PPIC is an independent, nonpartisan research institution and does not take positions on legislation. My comments are based on recent PPIC research on the digital divide in California and efforts to achieve digital equity for California’s students.

The COVID-19 pandemic made digital access an educational necessity and highlighted the state’s longstanding digital divide—defined as disparities in reliable access to internet and digital devices. In spring 2020, when schools shifted abruptly to distance learning, only 68% of households with school-age children had reliable access to digital devices. As a result of federal, state, and local efforts, 82% of households had reliable device access by fall 2020, with the greatest gains among low-income households, households without any college graduates, and Black and Latino households.

figure – Access to digital devices increased dramatically during the pandemic

However, internet access improved more modestly. The share of households with reliable internet access rose from 71% to 75% between spring and fall 2020. Gains were strongest among low-income households and households without a bachelor’s degree.

figure – Gains in internet access have been modest

Moreover, progress on both device and internet access stalled in the spring of 2021. Forty-one percent of low-income households still do not have full digital access for distance learning; neither do 37% of Latino households and 29% of Black households. The lack of further progress could be contributed to a couple of factors: first, most schools had reopened for in-person instruction by the spring of 2021; second, many low-income and rural communities lack broadband infrastructure, which takes many years to develop.

Key barriers to universal digital access include availability, affordability, and adoption. Availability is especially low in rural areas, among residents living in multi-unit dwellings, and in tribal communities, where infrastructure is lacking. Affordability and adoption issues are disproportionately present in low-income communities, communities of color, and non-English-speaking communities, where digital literacy is relatively low. Federal and state governments enacted major policy initiatives to lower barriers to access during the pandemic. In the interest of time, I will highlight three key investments.

The first is the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), created in 2021. The ECF provides $7.2 billion to help schools and libraries provide internet or devices to students and school staff. It covers eligible devices, Wi-Fi hotspots; routers, and connectivity purchases for off-campus use. ECF funds provided about 13 million devices and 8 million broadband connections to about 18 million students nationwide during the pandemic. Educational entities in California have requested nearly $1.4 billion in ECF funds, or around 15% of the total funds applied nationwide so far. The funding has provided about 1.6 million connected devices to California schools.

The second major investment is the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program. Created in February 2021, EBB provides $3.2 billion to help eligible households connect to the internet. The program was replaced in November 2021 by the $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to connect households for work, school, health care and other services. Eligible households receive $30 per month towards broadband service. About 5.8 million California households are eligible for ACP subsidies; half of those households are currently enrolled. There is considerable variation across counties: In Imperial County, 100% of eligible households are participating, while only 5% of eligible households in Mono County have enrolled. Counties with higher poverty rates tend to have higher participation.

It is worth noting that, as of February 8, Congress had taken no action to renew funding for the ACP program; as a result, the ACP is no longer accepting new enrollments, and enrolled households will continue to receive the monthly benefit until the ACP funds run out, which is projected in April 2024.

Thirdly, California State Senate Bill (SB) 156 allocated $6 billion to increase equitable, affordable access to high-speed internet. At the time of its passing in 2021, SB 156 was the largest public broadband infrastructure investment in the country. It includes $3.2 billion to build, operate, and maintain an open-access, state-owned middle-mile network, and $2 billion to set up last-mile connections. Because most of SB 156’s multiyear funding comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the money must be encumbered by December 2024 and spent by December 2026.

In our research, we have seen school districts, cities, and counties leveraging new investments to bolster their efforts to close the digital divide. Two decades ago, the Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority—a collaborative of 35 agencies including school districts, city governments, the county office of education, Imperial Community College, and San Diego State University—established a fiber optic network to provide network and internet services to over 120 educational and public agencies throughout the county. Recent one-time dollars helped the county replace equipment for security purposes, expand network capacity, and increase the number of antennas.

Fresno Unified School District leveraged its fiberoptic backhaul and school buildings as platforms to deploy a private LTE service to students in the county’s southern region. The district deployed LTE at 15 school-facilities-as-towers covering about 20 square miles and supporting more than 6,500 concurrent student connections.

Finally, Lindsay Unified School District, a small rural district in the Central Valley, built a community Wi-Fi network in 2016 to deliver high-speed internet to students at home, and shifted some of their curriculum online. State and federal funding allowed the district to maintain its network during the pandemic.

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the importance of digital connectivity. Federal, state, and local efforts have led to considerable improvements in digital access for students, with especially strong progress in access to computing device. However, three in ten households with school-age children still lack access to either reliable internet or a device, and disparities along racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines persist. Given the increased frequency and intensity of flooding, wildfires, earthquakes, and extreme weather events, universal broadband access is key to building resilience to the education system, so that learning can continue when school buildings are closed, and all students have access to a high-quality education.


coronavirus COVID-19 digital access digital divide digital equity distance learning internet access K–12 Education online learning Poverty & Inequality racial disparities