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Broadband Relief Coming For Some College Students Under Federal Relief Plans

A student at Los Angeles Southwest College receives a device during the pandemic from the college's tech support program. (Courtesy LA Community College District)
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The digital divide that has widened during the pandemic has been more than a stumbling block for many college students trying to adjust to online learning -- it's been a closed gate.

But there could be at least some relief in sight from the federal government. The coronavirus relief package signed into law last month includes a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund that will help low-income families with a $50 monthly reimbursement for internet services. College students who receive federal Pell Grant aid are also eligible.

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"This is great news for -- among others -- low-income/minority college students who have not been able to attend in-person classes or study at the library and thus need to rely on broadband access at home for classes and assignments," said USC professor Hernán Galperin, a researcher of internet policy and digital inequality.

The relief comes as higher education researchers and advocates are detailing how the pandemic has increased college dropout rates and is lengthening times to graduation. As the pandemic pushed colleges to move education online, some of the students most affected have been those with the least access to high quality internet before the pandemic: low-income students and Black and Latino students.

"The lack of access to devices and internet is threatening college students' education," said Manny Rodriguez, senior legislative associate with The Education Trust-West. "We need to craft solutions with low-income students, students of color at the center, because they're the ones that are being impacted the hardest during this time."


UC Berkeley student Sadia Khan shares a campus apartment and its WiFi service with her kindergartener and her sister, who is enrolled at UC Davis. (Courtesy Sadia Khan)

For many students, poor internet access means disrupted classes.

"I would log on, get dropped, log on, get dropped. And that would happen like four or five times," said Sadia Khan, a UC Berkeley senior who lives on campus. "Then you kind of just get frustrated and tired because you want to be in there, you want to participate in class. But what do you do when everything that you're trying is no longer working?"

Khan shares her apartment, and the internet service, with her 5-year-old son and her sister, who's enrolled at UC Davis. Khan's son and sister have also had the same connectivity struggles.

On bad days, Khan shuts off her computer and listens to her lectures by phone.

Cal State Northridge graduating senior Kelly De Leon also shares a home with others. Two of her three roommates work from home and another takes college classes at home.

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"We call it Zoom University, and it was just a horrible experience overall," she said.

Their internet access costs $70 a month but doesn't meet their needs. The problems didn't derail her college plans, but this is not how she wanted to remember her last year of college.

Even with their connectivity issues, Khan and De Leon are fortunate compared with many of their peers.


Education Trust-West laid out stark numbers in an October report:

  • More than 1 in 10 California college students don't have access to the internet
  • Roughly the same proportion don't have a device to be able to engage in distance learning

The group used federal college student data and estimated that more than 100,000 California students have been left in the dark as education has shifted online. They are largely students of color from low-income households.

CSU Northridge student Kelly De Leon has struggled with unreliable internet service during the pandemic. (Courtesy Kelly De Leon)

The group included UC undergraduate survey data from Spring 2020 that suggested a third of students had concerns, some serious, about the impact of reliable internet on their learning.

"The digital divide conversation has been very focused on K-12, which is critically important, but we cannot lose sight of the digital divide in higher education," Rodriguez said. "K-12 has received a good chunk of money through the learning loss mitigation fund -- $5.3 billion -- but we haven't seen anything similar for higher education."

That $5.3 billion allocation is in the current state budget.


The Federal Communications Commission defines Broadband internet -- which includes wireless, cable, DSL, fiber optic, or satellite -- as the ability to download at a rate of 25 megabits per second and upload at a rate of at least 3 megabits per second. When multiple people share, those speeds can get slow.

In a letter sent to the California Broadband Council, 20 advocacy groups, including Education Trust-West, said the 25 mbps/3 mbps standard isn't enough for households where multiple members are using video conferencing platforms and are uploading documents and streaming video. The group called for a 100 Mbps/100 Mbps speed per household.

The Broadband Council released a 50-page action plan right before the New Year that acknowledges the critical need for wider broadband access as workplaces, schools and health services become more dependent on remote learning and employment.

"Californians' ability to access and use broadband became the difference between being able to fully engage in life, and being cut off," the plan says.

It lists three main goals for all Californians:

  • High-performance broadband available at home, schools, libraries and businesses
  • Access to affordable broadband and necessary devices
  • Access to training and support to enable digital inclusion.

Page 2 of BB4All-Action-Plan-Final

Contributed to DocumentCloud by KPCC Documents (Southern California Public Radio) • View document or read text

There is no specific timetable in the plan for implementing these reforms.


The November letter from the 20 advocacy organizations -- including the Cal State Student Association, UC Student Association, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Public Advocates -- also asked the council to:

  • Improve marketing and visibility of low cost and free broadband programs, as well as removing data limits on those programs so that households can more easily accommodate multiple devices
  • Help establish a low-income benchmark, such as Cal Grant or Pell Grant eligibility, for college student eligibility for those programs
  • Increase use of antennas and other technology on college campuses to allow students to come onto campus to use WiFi at places such as parking lots

"We need to build those high-speed networks such as fiber, just as we have roads, highways and railroads," said Carmen Lidz, chief information officer for the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District.

Since the pandemic began, the district has handed out more than 40,000 laptops and other devices for students, but not nearly as many portable hotspots. That's led to connectivity issues for many students. Lidz lists a patchwork of solutions her district has used to help students, such as the L.A. County Hotspot Locator, and internet reimbursement programs for students. But that's not enough.

The L.A. Community College District enrolls more than 200,000 students. Even a system that large can't fix the digital divide on its own.

"What the commercial companies can do is increase affordability and accessibility to the broadband services to those underserved residential areas, and provide free wireless services in some of the public spaces across our communities," she said.

The California Broadband Council did not include such a direct recommendation in its state broadband action plan, but did list ways companies have increased access to services for low-income families.


For now, students can look to the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program for some relief.

To qualify, a household must have a person who is eligible for the public school free and reduced-price lunch program, has suffered economically because of a layoff or furlough during the pandemic, or has a member who has received federal college financial aid, known as Pell Grants. Qualifying families will have access to a $50 monthly reimbursement ($75 if the household is on tribal lands) on their internet service provider bill.

The FCC is expected to release more details about the implementation of the federal broadband benefit in the coming weeks.