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National Top-Down approaches to address digital Equity---do they work?

By Evelyn Moreno

In a recent study titled ‘Community Variations in Low-Income Latino Families’ Technology Adoption and Integration, led by Dr. Vikki S. Katz and Dr. Carmen Gonzalez, they examined how digital equity issues and a national top-down policy program aimed at addressing those issues took  shape at the local level.

Brief Summary:

The study by Katz and Gonzalez assessed how local decision makers implemented a national digital equity program called Connect 2 Compete, and how this technology was adopted by families in Tucson, Denver, and Chula Vista.  The assessment focused on the national digital equity initiative’s assumptions of what the families in these communities needed.

They emphasize that localized efforts would strengthen a national program addressing digital equity, develop meaningful partnerships and foster sustainability. The authors conclude that local linkages and local partnerships must be made in order to fit the needs and concerns of families about technology adoption. 

About the Connect 2 Compete Program

The program, called Connect 2 Compete, or C2C, emerged as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 Broadband plan to provide affordable broadband and access to computers and skills training for families who qualified for subsidized lunch. At the local level, C2C was a private-public partnership between internet companies, school districts, and families. For the purpose of their study, Katz and Gonzalez focused on Mexican-Origin families, both immigrant and U.S. born,  in three of the C2C program sites of  Tucson, Arizona,  Denver, Colorado, and Chula Vista, California. In total, 336 parents and children participated in qualitative interviews as part of the study.

[Photo courtesy of Evelyn Moreno, South LA computer repair shop and internet cafe]




Key Findings from Research

There was a general pattern in decision making about technology adoption in low-income families;

  • Decisions to adopt technology are informed and constrained by limited discretionary income; The range of devices a family owns reflects the family priorities, compared to a higher income family who would not be sacrificing as much over the purchase of one thing over another
  • Children play a central role in persuading parents on which technology to purchase.
  • Children contribute to how devices are integrated into family life. Children have greater facility with technology and the use of the technology with parents becomes an exchange of knowledge.     

Overall, the findings suggest that;

“In all three sites media-rich households were the norm; most families had a range of devices, including television, tablets, smartphones, laptops, computers, and video game systems.”

  • The top-down approach in C2C was not effective in providing quality access to the internet and capable internet technologies that fit the needs of low-income communities they aimed to serve.
  • While findings show that most low-income families were not getting access to the internet for the first time, the bottom up approach to the study shed light on the local level factors that shape the use of the internet, and how low-income Latino families weigh the “risks and rewards” of using the internet

Digital Technology and Inequality: Moving Beyond “Haves/Haves-Nots”

The findings of the study takes the discussion of digital technology and inequality beyond “haves/have-nots.” By examining technology use among low-income Latinos, the study provides empirical evidence that local contexts of the risks and benefits of using technology, and cultural factors affecting technology adoption must be taken into account in national policies aimed at digital equity. Cultural and Structural/Decision Level Factors affecting technology adoption in each of the three study sites:

  • While C2C was meant to provide affordable broadband technologies and skills training, the program was implemented differently across the three sites; broadband was offered directly by the partnering internet companies operating at each site, each with its own eligibility criteria for the low-cost broadband program. 
  • Broadband connection was offered via Ethernet cord at $9.95 a month, and a wif-fi port that most families used was offered at an additional cost. At this rate, internet speed in Denver was offered up to 5 megabits per second (Mbps) with upload speeds of 1 Mbps, in comparison to the same providers average speeds of 42 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. This speed in connectivity resulted in families viewing C2C as a “second-class connection that was insufficient for their needs.”
  • The school district shaped the implementation of the C2C program by deciding how to advertise and provide access to technology. This resulted in different internet and technology adaptions by the low-income families.


Cultural vs. structural level factors affecting technology and internet adoption


Cultural Level Factors

Decision Maker Level Factors

Tucson, AZ

  • Parents afraid of internet surveillance due to immigration surveillance concerns; especially where laptops were provided by school
  • Parent concerns over children use of technology, overexposure, oversharing, etc.; meant monitoring
  • Having internet at home meant for the families, they could withdraw from public spaces
  • Families afraid of laptop being stolen and they being liable; computers sent home meant giving families a limited sense of ownership
  • The heavy outreach by the school district and C2C program in Denver resulted in interviewed families in Tucson knowing about the program, but only 8 signed up
  • School laptops sent home from grades 4 and up as part of district wide program
  • C2C program was heavily advertised with C2C representatives attending school events to enroll families and through teachers, school staff, and flyers
  • Eligibility for C2C broadband rate for internet provider in Tucson (and Chula Vista) required being qualified for subsidized lunch, but placed restrictions if you had any debt or a contract with them within last six months
  • Slow connection speed

Denver, CO

  • Denver families less concerned with immigration issues due to longest US tenure or US Born status; they were more integrated into local environments
  • Denver families had broadest range of internet enabled devices; this meant less sharing among devices
  • Parents also shared concerns over children use of technology; these concerns also result in monitoring and rules for on-line use
  • Denver parents were more open to technology because of their longer experience with tech use
  • To be eligible for C2C broadband rate, you had to qualify for subsidized lunch and had no contracts with company within last 3 months; debt over a year old was forgiven
  • Slow connection speed
  • Computers were offered by the district at $149; no other technology program in place at district

Chula Vista, CA

  • 80% of parents in Chula Vista immigrants from Mexico
  • General concerns over on-line safety and monitoring
  • Use internet for co-engagement (homework or translation), or research (WebMD)
  • Technology allowed for cross-border ties
  • Technology adoption seemed less restrictive or cautious  than Tucson or Denver
  • C2C program was most heavily promoted in Chula Vista
  • Eligibility for C2C broadband rate from internet provider in Chula Vista required being qualified for subsidized lunch, but placed restrictions if you had any debt or  contract with them within last six months
  • The district offered free or low-cost refurbished desktops


To learn more about their research in digital equity, please visit http://digitalequityforlearning.org/


1 Ball-Rokeach, S.J., Kim, Y.C., & Matei, S. (2001). Storytelling neighborhood: Paths to belonging in diverse urban environments. Communication Research. 28(4), 392-428

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