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The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a range of systemic inequities, from healthcare availability to employment opportunities and beyond.

For higher education, internet access is tipping the scales between the haves and have-nots. When the delivery of high-quality instruction depends on reliable, high-speed broadband connections for every student — as it does right now — anyone lacking the right resources gets left behind.

The dangers of being left behind are even more grave after the California wildfires. According to a 2019 report from Governor Gavin Newsom’s Strike Force, “the lack of broadband in rural communities and access to cell service make it difficult to communicate clear emergency evacuation orders to residents or locate residents who are in trouble.”

In this moment, internet access directly impacts Californians’ ability to survive extreme danger and better their chances for economic recovery through education. It’s time to ensure all Californians can get connected.

As of 2018, the most recent year for which data are available, 89% of households in California had some type of broadband internet subscription, including through cable, fiber optic, DSL and cellular data plans.

Broadband access varies substantially with household income, however, with 96% of households earning at least $75,000 per year having access to broadband, compared with just 68% of households earning less than $20,000. If you exclude cellular data plans, a key way many low-income households access the internet, the overall figure for California households drops to 75%.

Californians in more rural areas are at a collective disadvantage. Due to the Federal Communications Commission’s hands-off approach to internet access, internet service providers have too often skipped places deemed less lucrative, even in parts of the seemingly well populated Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. The practice called “digital redlining,” wherein wealthy neighborhoods have better access than lower-income ones, persists — often along racial lines. As we look toward the impending transition toward 5G networks, addressing this issue now is necessary to achieving digital equity in the future.

We’ve been particularly dismayed to learn that internet access is lower among households whose members stand to benefit the most from online education — including those without a college degree. In fact, adults without a college degree ages 25–54 constitute 63% of Californians without high-speed internet access. That’s five times the statewide average.

Nationally, a fifth of this population says it is likely to enroll in an online-only college or university within a year and over a quarter is likely to do so within the next two years, according to a recent survey by Strada Consumer Insights.

Degree attainment is an essential pathway to economic mobility and to reenergizing our state and regional economies with newly qualified workers for the high-demand jobs of the 21st century. Online education can be a great equalizer when it comes to higher educational access — working nimbly around long commutes, tight schedules and physical mobility limits — but only if every student has adequate internet connectivity.

Students lacking a reliable high-speed broadband connection — not to mention a device able to access it — will not merely fall behind in this environment, they will be excluded from the system entirely — and the rest of the state will miss out on their talent, ideas and newfound skills.

If our state expects to buoy Californians through the pandemic and beyond, to engineer an equitable economic recovery and to ensure a future of shared prosperity, this has to change now.

The fix is clear: Federal, state and local governments must equitably expand the reach, reliability and affordability of broadband internet access to ensure access to online education for underserved populations.

Already, some have taken up this charge. In Delaware, state leaders channeled $20 million in federal CARES Act funding to expand rural broadband coverage and improve internet access for low-income households — building new broadband towers, purchasing services in bulk for qualifying families and incentivizing providers to expand their networks and increase speed. Here in California, tens of thousands of laptops and hotpots have been ordered for college and university students while Governor Gavin Newsom directs state officials to develop a new broadband access plan.

California policymakers, at both the state and regional levels, now have the chance to ensure every resident can access reliable, affordable high-speed internet. Expanding broadband access is essential in the immediate term and ensuring that low-income communities are included in the 5G rollout will be critical to realizing a more equitable future.

As a world leader in technology and innovation, the future of our state depends on it. Let’s not miss this transformative opportunity.


Su Jin Gatlin Jez, Ph.D. is executive director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, a higher education and workforce policy research organization. Peter J. Taylor is president of ECMC Foundation, a national foundation working to improve postsecondary outcomes for students from underserved backgrounds.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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