The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is for families to have a high-speed broadband internet connection at home, and the educational, economic, and social disadvantages faced by those who lack access. Children whose families did not have broadband access fell further behind in school or had challenges completing school assignments. Studies show this “homework gap” particularly affects children of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, including those with disabilities, and those experiencing homelessness.
Why is this happening? According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, families who are designated as low-income are less likely to own a computer, more likely to rely on smartphones for Internet access, and cite cost as the biggest barrier to getting a broadband subscription and having a computer in their home.
The digital divide between families who have high-speed internet and a computer at home and those who lack both is a pervasive problem in Santa Barbara County. But for more than 20 years, Cox Communications and Partners in Education’s Computers For Families (CFF) program have worked together to be part of the solution.
Connections to Computers and Opportunity
The unprecedented federal funding for Internet access nationwide in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides an unique opportunity for local governments and community groups. For Cox and CFF, this means working even more closely and strengthening our successful, long-standing relationship to provide affordable devices and Internet service to families in Santa Barbara.
CFF helps Santa Barbara County families access free computers, low-cost Internet service, and free, bilingual technical training and support. This gives families the full range of capabilities they would not otherwise have on a smartphone, enabling their children to do online homework assignments, and helping them more easily access government benefits, find employment, and connect to other resources.
Free Technical Support in English and Spanish
All families who receive devices through CFF participate in digital literacy training, which gives them the skills they need to safely use a computer and the Internet. In addition, they have access to free online resources teaching them the basics, such as how to use Microsoft 365, through the Cox Digital Academy.
CFF also helps households, both with and without school-aged children, sign up for low-cost Internet service through programs like Connect2Compete and ConnectAssist, as well as the federal governments’ Affordable Connectivity Program. This is an especially valuable service, since 70 percent of qualified California households surveyed pre-pandemic were unaware of these affordable options.
In 2020, Cox-sponsored student interns at CFF were instrumental in supporting families who needed technical assistance, information about online safety training, internet connection, and more. That year alone, these interns helped 586 families, 22 percent of whom did not previously have internet access. In 2021, Cox-sponsored student interns at CFF helped 90 more families sign up for Connect2Compete, assisting more than 500 families with computers for their households—and logging a total of 500 phone calls from families that needed support with internet connectivity, general technical assistance, one-on-one technical support and more.
To bridge the digital divide and ensure high-speed internet connectivity for all, we need government and donor support for these impactful, cost-effective digital inclusion resources and programs already available to low-income households. In 2022, Cox is seeking to expand CFF’s digital literacy education program and hopes to continue advancing CFF’s efforts to equip low-income families with devices that will help them achieve academic, social, and financial success.
If you are interested in receiving a free computer and low-cost Internet services for your home in Santa Barbara County, check out Partners in Education’s Computers For Families program and visit cox.com/c2c. If you would like to donate to support CFF’s digital equity efforts, please visit partners.sbceo.org/donate/.
Kirsten McLaughlin is Market Vice President at Cox Communications. Chelsea Pacino Duffy is Executive Director of Partners in Education, a nonprofit organization of the Santa Barbara County Education Office.