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Broadband adoption in urban and suburban California: information-based outreach programs ineffective at closing the digital divide

Lloyd Levine (School of Public Policy, University of California, Riverside, California, USA)

Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society

ISSN: 1477-996X

Article publication date: 19 June 2020

Issue publication date: 4 August 2020




The digital divide has persisted in California and the USA as a whole at approximately the same level for the past decade. This is despite multiple programs being created and billions of dollars being spent to close it. This paper examines why the efforts to date have been ineffective and to offers policy alternatives that might be more successful.


Using data from three, variable constrained projects in California, this paper examines the effectiveness of information-based outreach efforts at closing the digital divide. The projects tested various outreach and enrollment methods to see which, if any, could increase broadband adoption in low-income households.


This project found that providing low-income households’ information about low-cost broadband offerings was ineffective at closing the digital divide. The findings in this paper were similar to those of two other works that examined the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Practical implications

The findings of this paper along with the works cited that evaluated the BTOP program should be enough to change public policy. For the past ten years, efforts to close the digital divide have focused on providing information to low-income households. However, two independent surveys show broadband adoption has remained virtually flat during that period.

Social implications

The digital divide brings concomitant economic and education harms and challenges that plague those unable to access information, services, educational and employment opportunities with the same ease, speed and sufficiency as their connected peers and neighbors. Those harms exacerbate the already existing education and income divides. This paper shows that without a change in strategy, those harms will persist.


This paper breaks new ground and addresses one of the weaknesses identified in existing research. To the best of author’s knowledge, this is the first paper of its type to use programs designed to generate data that can be empirically evaluated for effectiveness. Prior studies attempted to assess program effectiveness by using data generated from fully implemented government programs. However, those programs contained a vast number of unidentified variables and insufficient data collection. They were not designed to facilitate academic evaluation, and as such made a true effectiveness evaluation challenging.



The author would like to thank Dean Anil Deolalikar and the University of California at Riverside School of Public Policy, Center for Technology, Society and Policy for their continuing support. The author is grateful to Dr Barbara O'Connor, Dr Barry Wellman, and Dr Laura Robinson for their ongoing support, collaboration, and assistance. Special appreciation goes to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and the Pew Research Center for collecting and maintaining the data on the digital divide and for making that data publicly available. Their data is vital to researchers and policy makers who want to understand the digital divide and its root causes and manifestations.


Levine, L. (2020), "Broadband adoption in urban and suburban California: information-based outreach programs ineffective at closing the digital divide", Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 431-459.



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