To fully participate in today’s rapidly changing economy and society, all individuals need access to digital tools, devices, and skills training. However, communities across the country have long faced challenges to achieving digital equity. For example, 19 million households struggle to access reliable, high-speed broadband, especially in instances where multiple individuals are accessing broadband and devices concurrently.10 In addition, although there are efforts to expand affordable access, limited awareness and availability of digital literacy development opportunities remain a barrier to adoption. Existing disparities in availability, affordability, and adoption of broadband and technology tools for learning have been highlighted and exacerbated by COVID-19 and other societal factors, as school, work, essential services, such as healthcare, and additional aspects of everyday life continue to move online at an accelerated pace. Therefore, the federal government, states and territories, localities, Tribes, nonprofit and community-based organizations, community anchor institutions, districts, schools, and institutions of higher education, and many others are contributing to the ongoing progress toward digital equity. Furthermore, through the 2022 Declaration for the Future of the Internet, the United States (U.S.) has committed to “promot[ing] affordable, inclusive, and reliable access to the internet for individuals and businesses where they need it and support efforts to close digital divides around the world to ensure all people of the world are able to benefit from the digital transformation.” 11
Adoption of Broadband12 The process by which an individual obtains daily access to the internet—
- at a speed, quality, and capacity—
- that is necessary for the individual to accomplish common tasks; and
- such that the access qualifies as an advanced telecommunications capability;
- with the digital skills that are necessary for the individual to participate online; and
- on a—
- personal device; and
- secure and convenient network.
Broadband:13 “Broadband” is generally shorthand for quality internet service. Broadband provides high-speed internet access via multiple types of technologies, including fiber-optics, wireless, cable,
Community Anchor Institution:14 An entity such as a school, library, health clinic, health center, hospital or other medical provider, public safety entity, institution of higher education, public housing organization, or community support organization that facilitates greater use of broadband service by vulnerable populations, including, but not limited to, low-income individuals, unemployed individuals, children, the incarcerated, and aged individuals.
Community-Based Organization:15 A private nonprofit organization of demonstrated effectiveness, Indian Tribe, or Tribally sanctioned educational authority, that is representative of a community or significant segments of a community and that provides educational or related services to individuals in the community.
Digital Equity:16 The condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.
Digital Literacy:17 The skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information.
High Speed Access:18 Refers to access that is not less than 100 megabits per second for downloads nor 20 megabits per second for uploads and latency that is sufficient enough to support real-time, interactive applications.
Technology Tools for Learning: Devices, hardware, software, and technology-based services used in in-school and out-of-school contexts for learning.
The State of Digital Equity for Learners
Significant progress has been made to increase access to broadband and technology tools for learning. Recent analysis of COVID-relief spending plans indicate that leaders have prioritized access to broadband and technology tools to facilitate learners’ learning in both in- and out-of-school settings.19 Since 2020, the median cost per megabit for school internet access has decreased by 24.9 percent—from $1.85 to $1.39 per megabits per second (Mbps)20 — and recent data from the 2020–21 National Teacher and Principal Survey reports 45 percent of public school principals have worked directly with internet service providers (ISPs) to help learners access the internet at home.21 District implementation of 1:1 device programs have also notably increased from 2020 to 2022, from 66 percent to 83 percent for grades 9–12 and from 69 percent to 86 percent for grades 6–8.22 In parallel, home internet access has increased substantially since 2015, notably among families with incomes below the poverty level, Black households, and families headed by immigrant Hispanic parents.23 States, Tribes, and U.S. territories have recognized the need for broadband affordability in addition to increasing device access and ownership. Utah, Washington, and California have been identified as exemplars for having innovative emerging practices in addressing affordability, access, and ownership in their state broadband plans.24
High quality broadband subscriptions predict a variety of positive economic outcomes, which include growth in prosperity (e.g., productivity, wages, and standard of living), median income, and employment opportunities.25 Access to broadband can enable opportunities for families to participate fully in the digital economy, expanding education and career advancement opportunities. A recent study conducted by the Brookings Institution reveals that at the county level, median income increases over time with increases to broadband subscriptions.26 This correlation between median income and broadband subscription predicts higher median household income in urban, suburban, and rural counties.27 Digital skills further break down physical, social, and economic barriers by providing opportunities to individuals regardless of income, geography, or educational attainment to access information, services, gainful employment opportunities, and resources.28 For example, Michigan created a High Speed Internet Office that provides direct 1:1 support in connecting constituents to health navigators.29 Sitting Bull College, located on the Standing Rock Reservation, launched a digital navigator program that supports learners preparing for their GED online.30 When addressing broadband access, it is imperative for leaders to consider widespread, inclusive adoption practices that stimulate greater social benefits for human capital and economic development than the availability of broadband alone.31
Bandwidth:32 The rate at which the network can transmit information. Generally, higher bandwidth is desirable. The amount of bandwidth available to you can determine whether you download a photo in two seconds or two minutes.
Digital Navigator:33 An individual who addresses the whole digital inclusion process—home connectivity, devices, and digital skills— with community members through repeated interactions.
While the increased access is promising, at least 18 million U.S. households still do not have access to any form of broadband due to a variety of reasons.34 The median bandwidth for learners in schools nationally is just 1.25 megabits per second for each learner,35 which may not be sufficient for more demanding activities.36 Modern and quality broadband services are especially lacking in rural37 and Tribal communities.38 Further, urban communities continue to face infrastructure challenges with old buildings unequipped to support broadband access, as well as physical structures that block transmission, commonly referred to as internet “dead zones.”39 The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recognizes its current approach to capturing broadband availability has led to inaccurate mapping and is therefore working toward updating its data collection and reporting processes.40
Recent analysis also indicates that the U.S. has the highest monthly internet cost compared to other North American, European, and Asian regions—average monthly plans cost $35.53 for DSL, $66.31 for cable, and $79.92 for fiber.41 Thirty-two percent of U.S. households are subscription vulnerable, meaning they are unable to afford and maintain services.42 This gap leads to differences in learning experiences, as 65 percent of families with income levels below the poverty threshold reported lack of access prevented their children from participating in school and completing schoolwork or that their child had no option other than to participate through a mobile device.43 Among families with income levels below the national median and with access to broadband, 56 percent stated the service was too slow, and among families with home access to a computer, 59 percent stated their device runs too slowly or does not work.44 Sixty-five percent of families with incomes below the national poverty level, 66 percent of Hispanic parents, 75 percent of families headed by immigrant Hispanic parents, and 56 percent of Black parents with incomes below the national median reported technology-related disruptions to their children’s learning.45 Such figures may also be higher in reality due to underreporting. For example, Spanish-language-dominant Americans are less likely to report having high-speed internet at home.46
of U.S. households are subscription vulnerable, meaning they are unable to afford and maintain services.42
of 37 million households that are eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program applied.71
The quality and type of home broadband access has shown to directly impact learner school participation,47 performance outcomes, and digital literacy.48 Learners with insufficient access are also less likely to plan for postsecondary education, impacting their lifetime potential for high earnings.49
Of the estimated 15–16 million K-12 learners who have insufficient broadband access or access to devices to support learning at home, approximately 6 million face adoption barriers apart from availability and affordability.50 For example, learners who have immigrated to the U.S. and learners from multilingual homes face unique challenges in getting connected and engaging with learning once connected. Credit checks or deposits to get a subscription and digital literacy gaps further inhibit receiving low-cost coverage.51 Children with disabilities, who disproportionately live in low-income households, experience additional technology barriers, such as outdated equipment, inaccessible online platforms and course materials, and a lack of in-person support to engage with technology tools for learning.52 Most school districts saw less than 10 percent of unconnected households enroll in free broadband programs, such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) and Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).53
Even with high technology usage in the classroom,54 few professional learning opportunities for effective technology use in instruction are provided to educators. The National Center for Education Statistics has found that on average, educators working with low-income and rural learners are the least likely to receive access to training on effective technology use in instruction.55 Combined, these barriers further contribute to the digital divide.
For learners in postsecondary or adult education programs, similar barriers exist. More than half of adult learners (54 percent) reported having to make purchases to participate in online learning. Further, 91 percent of adult learners who are also caregivers responded that these purchases were costly,56 and 44 percent of learners reported that internet connectivity problems interfered with their ability to attend or participate in courses at least occasionally.57 Internet connectivity problems were reported more often by Hispanic and Black adult learners than by non-Hispanic white adult learners.58 Of those learners who do have internet access, 54 percent of learners (72 percent of learners who are caregivers) reported that the internet was a significant cost.59 Further, 16 percent of adult learners reported sharing their device with others in their household,60 and 38 percent of learners reported primarily completing coursework on a smartphone.61
Disparate access not only has an impact on learning, but consequently on the economic security and opportunities of learners, educators, families/caregivers, and their communities.62 Adult learners with limited English fluency were inhibited from accessing online upskilling opportunities during the pandemic due to language barriers.63 Parents earning lower wages and/or with less formal education are more likely to rely on their children for technology help,64 and data show that lack of high-speed internet is disproportionately common in low-income, rural, and Tribal communities.65 Under-connected communities are barred from engaging in the workforce, participating in tele-medicine, engaging in schoolwork, and maintaining social connections.66 Adult learners reported not having familiarity with online learning technologies and being unable to access essential services such as support services and instructors.67 With over 32 million adults lacking basic digital literacy skills, coupled with the accelerated transition to a digital society and economy, ubiquitous access to high-quality broadband and resources for digital skills training and support are essential.68
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC deployed the $3.2 billion EBB program to support home broadband access and help learners and families/caregivers access jobs, healthcare, and education by providing subsidized monthly broadband services and discounts on buying a device.70 In December 2021, only 9 million households, including 139,000 households on Tribal lands, had enrolled out of the 37 million eligible.71 Recent research indicates that only a quarter of low- and middle-income households are even aware of free or discounted broadband offers.72 FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has recognized that investment in community-based organizations would have improved the success of the EBB program, now expanded to the ACP.73 As trusted partners and messengers, nonprofit and local organizations have proactively been working at the grassroots level to provide in-person assistance for enrollment in eligible federal programs.74 However, such awareness-building and inclusive adoption efforts necessitates focused support from leaders that match the level of work required from community-based organizations.75
The Role of the U.S. Department of Education in Advancing Digital Equity
As demonstrated by the current state of digital equity, access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools for learning is a multifaceted challenge. The broader challenge of access can be viewed through three distinct, although not mutually exclusive, components—availability, affordability, and adoption. To advance digital equity, all three components must be addressed individually and in connection with one another. Learners, families/caregivers, and their communities need to have high-speed broadband service and technology tools for learning ubiquitously available to them, that service and those devices need to be affordable long-term, and information, technical support, and skill development opportunities must be accessible to ensure adoption. Building the necessary physical infrastructure alone, although a critical step, will not resolve the unique challenges faced by learners, families/caregivers, and communities. Leaders must, in parallel, ensure access is sustainably affordable and provide adoption support.
In developing this guidance resource, OET leveraged its experience in setting the national vision for the effective use of technology for learning, strong relationships with educators and education ecosystems, and commitment to co-creating solutions with communities to drive the national dialogue on the adoption of reliable, high-speed broadband and technology for learning and catalyze collective action to remove barriers for learners, families/caregivers, and communities. OET envisions a future in which every learner has the information, support, and skills to equitably access affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband service, adequate internet-enabled devices, digital literacy skills training, quality technical support, and applications and online content designed to facilitate self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration. When learners and their broader ecosystem are connected, they are able to access vital online services, such as tele-health, counseling, social services, remote employment opportunities, job training, and more.
The Three Components of Access—Availability, Affordability, Adoption
Availability: Is there sufficient infrastructure and coverage to deliver reliable, high-speed wired or wireless broadband service and technology tools for learning?
Affordability: Can learners and families/caregivers pay for the total cost of maintaining reliable, high-speed broadband service and technology tools for learning?
Adoption: Do learners and families/caregivers have the information, support, and skills to obtain regular, adequate access to reliable, high-speed broadband service and technology tools for learning?
The Digital Equity Education Roundtables Initiative
OET developed the Digital Equity Education Roundtables (DEER) initiative to advance digital equity. The DEER initiative seeks to close the digital divide and enable all learners in PK-12, higher education, and adult education to unlock technology-enabled opportunities for learning and fully participate in a digital society. Through the DEER Initiative, OET hosted a series of national conversations (listening sessions) with leaders from community-based organizations as well as families and learners furthest from digital equity to learn more about the barriers faced by learner communities and promising solutions for increasing access to technology for learning. Based on these conversations, OET shares the following guidance on equitable broadband access, with particular emphasis on adoption, to support leaders in building their digital equity plans.
Opportunities in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
This guidance resource is designed to help leaders build effective digital equity plans, with particular attention to access barriers faced by learners. This guidance resource is NOT intended to provide guidance regarding the allowable uses of various funds included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or other broadband-related federal funds. For information regarding allowable uses and other specific details about broadband programs in this legislation, such as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and Digital Equity Act, please visit https://www.internetforall.gov/. For information about other broadband-related federal funds, please visit https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/resources/federal/federal-funding
10 American Libraries. (2022). A Broad Look at Broadband [Infographic]. AmericanLibraries.com. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/de-infographic.pdf
11 U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Declaration for the future of the internet. https://www.state.gov/declaration-for-the-future-of-the-internet
12 Text – H.R.3684 – 117th Congress (2021–2022): Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (2021, November 15). http://www.congress.gov/
13 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2021a). Glossary of Terms. Keeping students connected and learning: Strategies for deploying school district wireless networks to connect students at home. https://tech.ed.gov/wireless-brief/glossary/
14 National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), U.S. Department of Commerce. (2022). Notice of Funding Opportunity: Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program. https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/sites/default/files/2022-05/BEAD%20NOFO.pdf
15 Text – H.R.1 – 107th Congress (2001–2002): No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. (2002, January 8). http://www.congress.gov/
16, 17, 18 H.R.3684 – 117th Congress (2021–2022): Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 2021
19 Jordan, P.W. & DiMarco, B. (2022). National, regional trends in educators’ Covid-relief spending. FutureEd. https://www.future-ed.org/national-reading-trends-covidrelief-spending/
20 Connect K-12. (2021). Report on school connectivity: Funding year 2021. https://connectk12.org/static/media/Connect_K12_Connectivity_Report_2021_
21 Berger, M., Kuang, M., Jerry, L., & Freund, D. (2022). Impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic on Public and Private Elementary and Secondary Education in the United States: Results from the 2020–21 National Teacher and Principal Survey (NCES 2022-019). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2022019.
22 Consortium for School Network (CoSN). (2022). EdTech Leadership Survey Report 2022. https://www.cosn.org/edtech-topics/state-of-edtech-leadership/
23 Katz, V. & Rideout, V. (2021). Learning at home while under-connected: Lower-income families during the COVID-19 pandemic. New America. https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/reports/learning-at-home-while-underconnected/
24 Microsoft, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, & National Skills Coalition. (n.d.). State broadband plans indicator. State digital equity scorecard. https://statescorecard.digitalinclusion.org/scorecard/by_indicator
25, 26, 27 Mossberger, K., Tolbert, C., & LaCombe, S. (2022, March 28). Why digital human capital is important in community building. Brookings TechTank. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2022/03/28/why-digital-human-capital-is-important-in-community-building/
28 EveryoneOn. (2022). Digital skills and trust: How they affect the way low- and lower-middle income households connected to the internet during the pandemic. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5aa8af1fc3c16a54bcbb0415/t/61fc71248a56247e899c2a20/1643933997111/EveryoneOn_Report_2_DigitalSkills_and_Trust.pdf
29, 30 The Newdeal Forum Broadband Task Force. (2022). Bridging the digital divide: Policy proposals to increase broadband access for all. https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/21203370/bridging-the-digital-divide-020922.pdf
31 Mossberger et al., 2022
32 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2021a
33 National Digital Inclusion Alliance. (n.d.). The Digital Navigator Model. https://www.digitalinclusion.org/digital-navigator-model/
34 Federal Communications Commission. (2020). 2020 broadband deployment report. https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progressreports/2020-broadband-deployment-report
35 Connect K-12, 2021
36 Federal Communications Commission. (2022). Consumer guide: Broadband speed guide. https://www.fcc.gov/sites/default/files/broadband_speed_guide.pdf
37 Communications Workers of American & National Digital Inclusion Alliance. (2020). AT&T’s digital redlining leaving communities behind for profit. https://www.digitalinclusion.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2020/10/ATTs-Digital-Redlining-Leaving-Communities-Behind-for-Profit.pdf
38 United States Government Accountability Office. (2018). Tribal broadband: FCC’s data overstate access, and tribes face barriers accessing funding. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-19-134t
39 Workie, E., Hinkle, L., deDufour, A., & Lacarte, V. (2022). Advancing digital equity among immigrant-origin youth. Migrant Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/mpi-digital-equity-2021_final.pdf
40 Federal Communications Commission. (2021). Rosenworcel statement: FCC takes next step to collect more precise broadband mapping data. https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-takes-next-step-collect-more-precise-broadband-mapping-data/rosenworcel-statement
41 National League of Cities. (2021). Conversations with Municipal Leaders: Digital Equity in Cities. https://nlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Digital-Advancementin-Cities-comp_V3.pdf
42 Horrigan, J.B. (2022, April 5). Three data points to help plan for infrastructure investment and jobs act broadband funding. Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Digital Beat. https://www.benton.org/blog/three-data-points-help-plan-infrastructure-investment-and-jobs-act-broadband-funding
43, 44, 45 Katz & Rideout, 2021
46 Johnson, M., Bashay, M., Bergson-Shilcock, A., Richardson, M., & DeRenzis, B. (2019). The roadmap for racial equity. National Skills Coalition. https://nationalskillscoalition.org/resource/publications/the-roadmap-for-racial-equity/
47 Katz & Rideout, 2021
48, 49 Hampton, K.N., Fernandez, L., Robertson, C.T., & Bauer, J.M. (2020). Broadband and Student Performance Gaps. James H. and Mary B. Quello Center, Michigan State University. https://doi.org/10.25335/BZGY-3V91
50, 51 Ali et al., 2021
52 National Council on Disability. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities. https://ncd.gov/sites/default/files/NCD_COVID-19_Progress_Report_508.pdf
53 Education Superhighway. (2021). No home left offline: Bridging the broadband affordability gap. https://www.educationsuperhighway.org/wp-content/uploads/NoHome-Left-Offline-Report_EducationSuperHighway2021.pdf
54, 55 Gray, C., & Lewis, L. (2021). Use of Educational Technology for Instruction in Public Schools: 2019–20 (NCES 2021-017). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2021017
56 Hiler, T., Fishman, R., & Nguyen, S. (2021, January 21). One semester later: How prospective and current college students’ perspectives of higher ed have changed between August and December 2020. Third Way. https://www.thirdway.org/memo/one-semester-later-how-prospective-and-current-college-students-perspectivesof-higher-ed-have-changed-between-august-and-december-2020
57, 58 Means, B., and Neisler, J., with Langer Research Associates. (2020). Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic. San Mateo, CA: Digital Promise. https://digitalpromise.dspacedirect.org/handle/20.500.12265/98
59, 60 Hiler, Fishman, & Nguyen, 2021
61 Clark, A. (2020, May 31). Survey reveals higher ed students have inequitable access to reliable broadband. Higher Learning Advocates. https://medium.com/higherlearning-advocates/survey-reveals-higher-ed-students-have-inequitable-access-to-reliable-broadband-ab3cc152d663
62 Education Superhighway, 2021
63 Bergson-Shilcock, A. (2020). Amplifying impact: How policies that combine investment in English language skills with digital learning pay off for workers and businesses. National Skills Coalition. https://nationalskillscoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/06-25-2020-NSC-Amplifying-Impact.pdf
64 Katz & Rideout, 2021
65 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2021b). Keeping Students Connected and Learning: Strategies for Deploying School District Wireless Networks to Connect Students at Home. https://tech.ed.gov/files/2021/06/20210618-WirelessBrief.pdf
66 American Libraries, 2022
67 Soria, K. M., Chirikov, I., & Jones-White, D. (2020). The obstacles to remote learning for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. SERU Consortium, University of California – Berkeley and University of Minnesota. https://cshe.berkeley.edu/seru-covid-survey-reports
68 The Newdeal Forum Broadband Task Force, 2022
69 Katz & Rideout, 2021
70 Federal Communications Commission. (2022, May 9). Emergency Broadband Benefit. https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit
71 Universal Service Administrative Co. (n.d.). Emergency Broadband Benefit program enrollments and claims tracker. Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. https://www.usac.org/about/emergency-broadband-benefit-program/emergency-broadband-benefit-program-enrollments-and-claims-tracker/
72 EveryoneOn. (2021). Affordability and the digital divide. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5aa8af1fc3c16a54bcbb0415/t/61ad7722de56262d89e76c94/1638758180025/EveryoneOn+Report+on+Affordability+%26+the+Digital+Divide+2021.pdf
73 Curi, M. (2021, September 23). Broadband subsidy program sign-ups lag amid lack of outreach funds. Bloomberg Law. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/tech-andtelecom-law/broadband-subsidy-program-sign-ups-lag-amid-lack-of-outreach-funds
74 Curi, 2021
75 EveryoneOn, 2021