The COVID-19 pandemic spurred unprecedented federal and state investments to expand broadband access and close the digital divide. At a virtual event last week, PPIC researchers Amy Gong Liu and Darriya Starr presented findings from a new report examining the barriers to installing broadband in underserved communities.
Infrastructure remains a major challenge and this plays out in different ways across the state. In rural areas, mountainous and rocky terrain make it difficult to install underground fiber lines, while trees and varying elevation levels can block wireless signals. In urban areas, multi-unit residences are especially likely to be underserved due to inadequate broadband infrastructure and other factors—even when surrounding neighborhoods are well connected. It is vital that policymakers take this wide variation in local conditions into account when trying to get all communities connected, said Liu.
Recent investments have helped address long-standing affordability issues. For example, the federal Affordable Connectivity Program offers an internet subsidy to low-income households. But, Starr noted that although nearly 6 million California households are eligible, only about a third of these households are enrolled in the program. She cited lack of awareness of the program’s existence and the complexity of the application process as two factors driving low participation rates.
Promoting digital literacy is also critical. “People need to have the skills and familiarity with technology to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that digital access offers,” said Starr. Some communities have had success partnering with adult education centers, public libraries, and community colleges to offer digital training sessions and encourage enrollment in subsidy programs.
Leveraging recent funding opportunities effectively will require ongoing collaboration among service providers, municipalities, public and private agencies, philanthropies, and community organizations. Given the diversity of communities across the state, Liu noted that regional consortia are also becoming increasingly important in sharing strategies and ensuring that broadband solutions are tailored to local needs.