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Measuring the Effectiveness of Digital Inclusion Approaches

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the depth and breadth of the digital divide. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, expanding access to Internet connectivity and devices has risen to the top of the national policy agenda. Yet, despite many existing and new initiatives at the federal, state, and local level, over 76 million Americans remained unconnected or underconnected (connected through a smartphone data plan only) in the first quarter of 2021, most of whom lived in low-income households. To alleviate this issue, federal and state governments are committing billions to broadband infrastructure and adoption in the near term, creating a unique window of opportunity to connect millions of low-income Americans. First, however, we need to make sure public funds are used effectively and that subsidies are distributed equitably and sustainably.

The Measuring the Effectiveness of Digital Inclusion Approaches project analyzes existing broadband inclusion initiatives to provide evidence-based recommendations on how best to connect low-income households sustainably to high-speed Internet services they can afford and use for today’s online activities. This project will focus on demand-side benefit programs that seek to increase broadband connectivity among low-income populations by bridging the affordability gap. Other initiatives that provide subsidies for network deployment will not be studied at this time. The project pursues two objectives. The first is to identify cost-effective ways to make these historic investments in broadband work for all. We evaluate the cost-effectiveness of existing programs by comparing the cost of the program to the output generated. The second is to identify efficient ways to meet the program objectives, i.e., to what extent the program targets and connects the target population. To achieve these objectives, we use quantitative data on eligible households, subscribed households, etc., and qualitative data from in-depth interviews of stakeholders of these programs.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is providing financial support for the collaboration. In addition, in-kind support is provided by the California Emerging Technology Fund, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy (CCLP).

An Expert Advisory Panel of well-known leaders will offer valuable insights into the design and review of the study.