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San Diego still doesn’t have equitable internet access one year into pandemic

A year after the pandemic made having a reliable internet connection a requisite for countless families, professionals, school children and others, the number of people without it has not changed and cities across the San Diego region have either no plan to address it or no money to fund their plans.

Some makeshift efforts to connect people at the beginning of the pandemic have fallen apart. Some agencies are doing more than others, further dividing the county in terms of digital access.

Nearly 82,000 households do not have access to the internet at all, and low-income and rural households are most disadvantaged, census data shows.

Yet there are many barriers preventing equitable internet access in the county: It’s expensive to build out fixed broadband networks in rural areas like Fallbrook and Rainbow. Major providers don’t provide service in parts of those communities, and few local internet service providers do.

And when major providers do provide service in those areas, they aren’t the fastest speeds — which can make video browsing and downloading files difficult. Contracts between city officials and internet service providers to expand 5G coverage have left out marginalized and poorer communities in places like San Ysidro.

Some internet service provider contracts require people signing up for service to lock in long-term contracts, prohibiting families from accessing the internet through a broadband subscription. There’s also an existing lack of supply of computers and devices, and existing digital literacy barriers within the most vulnerable populations, like seniors and non-English speakers.

Forty-two percent of people who live in unincorporated parts of San Diego County have fixed broadband, compared with 97 percent of people in urban areas, new data shared by the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, reveals. School closures countywide have revealed similar inequities. Twenty to 40 percent of students in many local districts are under-connected or lack home internet access, the data shows.

Community activists have long underscored the impacts of the gaps of access to high-speed, reliable internet to non-White and poorer communities and they’ve critiqued public leaders for not taking quicker action to bridge the divide.

Their biggest concerns: Connectivity and cost leave underserved populations behind and exacerbate disparities in economic and educational opportunities. Over the course of the pandemic, people have needed the internet to access public health advisories, financial and job assistance, video conferencing calls for school and work, and delivery services. The combination has exacerbated existing socioeconomic disparities.

Initiatives like San Diego’s Access 4 All plan have made Wi-Fi accessible at public facilities and created solutions during the pandemic. Advocates told VOSD those initiatives are a great first step for now, but city and county leaders need to rectify the root causes of inequitable access to technology with a long-term road map that has an equity and justice lens and includes buildout of high-speed fiber-optic internet.

“Not having this infrastructure in underserved communities is systematically excluding us for technological improvements,” Barry Pollard, executive director of nonprofit The Urban Collective, said in a January SANDAG meeting.

At the same time, regional leaders agree the divide is growing but there’s not enough funding to bridge the gap.

“The growth of the digital divide has accelerated and been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reliable access to broadband is a fundamental underpinning of this successful economy. Without it, access to broadband is a fundamental underpinning of this successful economy. Without it, our most vulnerable populations are at risk of becoming part of a permanent digital underclass,” Kirby Brady, the chief innovation officer for the city of San Diego, said in a release.

In May last year, city leaders in Chula Vista found that 11.4 percent of its residents did not have a broadband internet subscription and about 4.7 percent did not have a device they could use to connect to the internet.

Among the groups most impacted by the digital divide are disabled residents, people who are homeless and housing insecure, job seekers, low-income and unbanked residents, migrants and refugees, residents who do not speak English, seniors and students, according to a city report.

Dennis Gakunga, Chula Vista’s chief sustainability officer, said city leaders want to fix the problem before it worsens, but cost and digital literacy continue to prevent people from having access to technology.

“We found that the main drivers in terms of inequity of the digital divide really stems from cost affordable internet. Not just affordable internet, but affordable and quality internet,” Gakunga said. “And access to devices has become worse since parents are working from home and now kids are working from home. They may have functioned with one computer, but now devices become an issue. We found some people are using their phone to access the internet.”

As workspaces like offices and schools where families accessed the internet for free closed in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many students who had unreliable internet access at home fell behind. More than 22,000 students in San Diego County lack access to the internet at home or are under-connected.

Approximately 65 percent of those students are concentrated in the southern and remote rural areas of the county, said Terry Loftus, chief technology officer for the San Diego County Office of Education. Loftus said distance learning is going to be here to stay in one form or another, and getting students connected is going to be an ongoing priority of his office.

“There has been both bright spots and areas still for opportunity. Generally speaking, our districts and charter schools on their own and in combination with the San Diego County Office of Education have made significant progress on acquisition of devices,” Loftus said. “Connectivity has improved significantly across county. We’re at a phase now where we’re working with rural districts directly on satellite and other unconventional solution areas that don’t have cable fiber and may not even have cellular infrastructure.”

Over the course of the pandemic, the state and federal government and local nonprofits have helped some families acquire devices and hotspots for remote learning and others with digital literacy programs. Those outside initiatives have kept some people afloat while the county is still trying to figure out a plan to help San Diego County residents.

Last March, Voice of San Diego reported that San Diego County didn’t track who did and didn’t have reliable internet access. Until recently, the county didn’t have a regional approach to identifying where or what the needs are. It spurred SANDAG to try to stitch together an approach the whole region could apply.

The agency is convening cities, school leaders and other stakeholders to come up with a list of problems exacerbating the digital divide for the county to prioritize, research and seek funding for. At the same time, activists and government leaders are starting to interrogate past deals with internet providers and others to see where opportunities to expand access were missed.

There are a lot of initiatives to address the digital divide, but it’s not organized across the region,” Antoinette Meier, principal regional planner, told VOSD. “There wasn’t one organization looking at it holistically.”

The SANDAG group is aiming to create a consensus about the need for treat broadband as though it were a public utility, like water and electricity. “In addition, a focus on the quality, cost of service, what communities do not have broadband subscriptions, and the performance of existing broadband expansion programs are components of the research process,” a report from the task force reads.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect updated numbers sent by the County Office of Education after this post was initially published. Those numbers show more than 22,000 students in San Diego County lack access to the internet at home or are under-connected.

Kayla Jimenez is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about communities, politics and regional issues in North County. Kayla can be reached at [email protected] or 619.550.5669.

This story was first published by Voice of San Diego. Sign up for VOSD’s newsletters here.