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One in four Americans do not have high-speed internet access at home. Indeed, in its latest biennial survey of undergraduate students, the University of California (UC) found that 40% of low-income undergraduate students are concerned or very concerned about reliable internet access, compared to only 28% of undergraduates who do not face significant financial constraints. Many of these students have gone to extreme lengths to stay connected, including gathering in parking lots outside coffee shops, restaurants, and campus buildings to access a steady WiFi signal. While these spaces have become a digital lifeline to online education, work, and public services, they’re a troubling sign of a deepening digital divide. A divide that UC is well positioned to help close.

Because of its extensive geographic footprint, vast infrastructure, technical capacity, and deep ties to surrounding communities, UC can serve an important role to help address digital insecurity throughout the state. A report published by the CITRIS Policy Lab with support from the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) proposes four guiding strategies and corresponding recommendations to expand affordable, high-quality, and equitable broadband access:

  • Enhance infrastructure and streamline policies. UC should take stock of and enhance its cyberinfrastructure to maintain and expand broadband access, including exploring use of innovative networking technologies such as long-range WiFi and wireless mesh networks. While recognizing legitimate concerns for privacy, security and public safety inherent in offering expanded network access, UC can draw on its deep research and technical expertise to improve its service to faculty, staff, and students and the broader communities it serves. UC should also identify opportunities to streamline infrastructure policies, such as those that could remove unnecessary contracting bottlenecks and reduce inefficiencies in leasing or investing in new infrastructure.
  • Strengthen services and programs enabled by broadband. Expanding cyberinfrastructure and digital inclusion will enable UC to extend and enhance its services and programs throughout the state, including in agricultural and rural communities. In doing so, UC can continue to serve as a driver of economic development, innovative research, and broadband investment throughout the state.
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  • Establish tailored communications and outreach campaigns. Numerous federal, state, and private sector broadband subsidy programs have been created or expanded during the pandemic. UC should develop creative communications and outreach campaigns to encourage awareness of these programs. For example, relevant offices could include a list of broadband subsidy programs in admissions offers, hiring packets, and extension programs.
  • Grow partnerships with the public and private sectors. Closing the digital divide requires cross-sector collaboration. UC should explore opportunities to form partnerships with the public and private sectors to leverage assets, funding opportunities, and training. UC is currently partnering with California Volunteers to pilot the #CaliforniansForAll College Corps at seven of its nine undergraduate campuses. UC could tap into its own technical capacity, education programs, and workforce training initiatives to extend this model to include public service projects to improve digital literacy and high-speed broadband coverage throughout the state. A “Connect California Corps” could work with community organizations to help them tap into federal and state broadband funding to improve infrastructure, access, and digital literacy.

While the pandemic has revealed the acute vulnerabilities faced by unconnected and under-connected communities, these broadband gaps will only deepen disparities if left unaddressed. Fortunately, political leaders and advocates have successfully integrated support for digital equity initiatives within economic recovery legislation, with billions in funding allocated in California. UC should be a key partner in this effort. In doing so, UC can leverage its unique capabilities to help the state of California close the digital divide, while simultaneously supporting its core mission to provide world-renowned teaching, path-breaking research, and meaningful public service. 

Crossposted from The Berkeley Blog