Achieving Digital Equity: The Oakland Town Link Program Playbook
Internet access is a vital tool in our society, and can open doors to economic, educational, and career opportunities. However, not all communities have equal access to the internet. This is what’s known as the digital divide, and it presents a significant barrier, particularly for communities of color and low-income families, seeking to thrive in our increasingly online world. In a report released in 2020, The Greenlining Institute found a correlation between communities that lack broadband access and neighborhoods that faced redlining and disinvestment beginning in the 1930s
In 2020, the City of Oakland and The Greenlining Institute partnered to develop The Town Link program to address the digital divide in the city and increase digital equity. Town Link’s digital inclusion program promotes digital literacy, affordable internet options and access to technological devices while prioritizing Oakland’s digitally disconnected communities.
Today, communities across the U.S. have a once in a generation opportunity to close the digital divide and promote digital equity with the passage of legislation, such as the Digital Equity Act, that commits billions of dollars of investment into digital inclusion programs and broadband infrastructure. To make the most of this opportunity, cities must target their digital inclusion efforts to the communities that face the largest barriers to digital equity.
This report provides an overview of learnings and recommendations from the Town Link digital inclusion program which can help local governments and community organizations apply for digital equity grants and develop their own digital inclusion program.
- Stark connectivity barriers persist in Oakland’s low-income households. Only 58% of surveyed households with an annual household income of $20,000 or less have home internet access.
- Low-cost plans are unpopular among qualified households. Only 55% of survey respondents earning less than $20,000 a year or less with internet access subscribed to low-cost internet plans.
- Oakland residents continue to lack access to laptops and computers. Over a quarter of respondents overall reported no access to a computer at home and that number rose to nearly 40% for Latino respondents.
- Many residents face significant digital literacy gaps. 15-25% of respondents reported they are not confident doing key online tasks that are relevant to economic opportunity and participation in everyday life, such as searching for jobs or accessing government services using the internet.
These findings acted as a catalyst for the change that was needed for Oakland low income families and communities of color. The Town Link Model- established through the effective work of the program identifies effective practices for continuing to create the same positive change through local governments and organizations across the country.
- Invest In Multi-Sector Coalitions: Digital equity coalitions are a collective of organizations operating within a collaborative structure to achieve a shared set of digital equity goals. These coalitions can help local communities achieve their digital equity goals, raise the profile of local digital inclusion efforts and create alignment between multiple stakeholders.
- Develop Data-Driven and Locally Relevant Prioritization Criteria: The Digital Equity Act (DEA) asks localities to target a broad list of “covered populations” in their digital equity efforts. To maximize the impact of DEA grants, digital inclusion efforts should be further targeted toward the neighborhoods and populations that have the lowest broadband adoption rates or are the most economically disadvantaged within DEA covered populations.
- Simplify Participation for Community Based Organizations (CBOs): Cities interested in working with multiple community partners in their digital inclusion program should address barriers to CBO participation to help include smaller organizations that may be a good fit but lack the experience or confidence to participate in these programs. This can include providing technical assistance and simplifying the application process.
- Focus on Recruiting Trusted Messengers with Pre-existing Communication Channels with Priority Communities: Organizations such as libraries or other direct service organizations that provide food, housing assistance, or other services to community members are strongly positioned as trusted messengers and should be encouraged to become digital navigators, even if they do not have prior experience with digital inclusion work. These organizations will typically have existing intake and referral services and can add digital navigator services to their portfolio more readily than an organization that has to develop this capability and community relationships from the ground up.
The Town Link program and the recommendations in this report present one model for community digital inclusion efforts that tap into the strength and resources of local community based organizations to ensure priority communities have the skills, tools and information they need to get connected to the Internet and the opportunities it enables.
Senior Legal Counsel of Tech EquityContact