COVID push to get kids online for school worked for computers but not broadband

The Benton Institute for Broadband and Society looks at students’ access to technology at the start at the pandemic (April 23-May 5) and seven months later (November 11-13). Access to computers increased; access to broadband didn’t.

They report on the computers…

Device availability (either always or usually) increased from 86.7% to 90.9% from May to November, with a notable increase in computers always being available (70.2% to 76.0%). Translating that into numbers (assuming a K-12 student population of 53.1 million) means that about 3 million more student households had computers always available for educational purposes in November 2020 than in May 2020.

More computers in student households were also coming from schools according to the November 2020 data. In May, 37.4% of households with students said a computer was provided by a child’s school or school district. This figure climbed to 62.0% by November.

And broadband…

Households with students in kindergarten through 12th grade have seen little change in internet availability since May, with that figure increasing from 89.3% to 90.4% (a statistically significant difference). Essentially the same share of these households has the internet always available for educational purposes over the 6-month time frame. For internet availability that is “always” or “usually” present, about 590,000 more households with K-12 students have the internet since May 2020.

Availability patterns play out among familiar lines of household income. The November data shows that, for households with incomes below $35,000 annually, 62.1% say the internet is always available for educational purposes while 75.8% of household above that income level say this. This filters into other metrics, as one-third (33.3%) of lower income households report the internet is either usually available (21.5%) or sometimes (11.8%). For households above the $35,000 annual income threshold, just 20.1% says this, with 15.4% saying the internet is usually available and 4.7% saying it is always available.

We saw that when we spoke to different Minnesota Counties about their COVID situation. Rock County is well served with nearly 100 percent access to broadband. To serve the students who weren’t set up they found computers and a way to make existing broadband affordable. While other counties, such Kanabec, there may be problems with computers and affordability but the bigger problems in that there is no adequate access. Surveys showed that while 6-12 percent of student households lacked access to Kanabec, 20-30 percent lacked adequate access.) Expanding or upgrading broadband where it doesn’t exist is not as easy.

It’s clearly awesome to get computers to the kids who need them. Heck – to the adults too. But access to broadband would have the longer standing impact. Households with broadband reap an economic benefit of $1850 (on the low end) and $10,500 (on the high end). It would increase the value of the homes. It would give that household access to a tool that will definitely outlive even the best computer.

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