Coronavirus Drives Home Internet Access Disparities Across San Diego County - Voice of San Diego

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Coronavirus Drives Home Internet Access Disparities Across San Diego County

As workspaces where people access the internet for free – schools, offices and cafes – close in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many who don’t have reliable internet at home are left to figure it out on their own or risk falling behind. 

San Diego Broadband’s offices in San Marcos / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Many of Arthur Gonzalez’s colleagues packed their things and prepared to work from home last week, after his company authorized its staff to work remotely. But Gonzalez still works out of the General Atomics office in Rancho Bernardo, because he can’t access the programs he needs to be productive at home.

Gonzalez lives in Rainbow, and said he has issues with internet connectivity due to the bandwidth from his Viasat satellite. The sluggish connectivity didn’t start when the coronavirus emerged. He’s always only been able to do light-duty browsing, but if he wants to watch video or download files, he has to pause and wait for the internet to buffer, he said.

He’s concerned now about potential exposure to coronavirus because he has direct contact with another man in a cubicle next to his.

Now as workspaces where people access the internet for free – schools, offices and cafes – close in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, working people and students who regularly access those public places and don’t have reliable internet at home are left to figure it out on their own or fall behind.

Experts and advocates say the pandemic brings to light a long-running problem: Some people living in the backcountry have no or poor connections; other low-income families and individuals simply can’t afford broadband internet.

Their biggest concerns: Connectivity and cost leave underserved populations behind.

“Not having access means losing out on educational opportunities, healthcare resources, job training and employment options, and a myriad of goods and services that can improve a person’s or family’s quality of life,” said Jessica Denson, a spokesperson for nonprofit ConnectedNation, which advocates for rural internet accessibility.

‘It’s No Longer a Privilege to Have Internet’

At the end of 2018, 18.3 million Americans lacked reliable fixed broadband internet speed, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Low-income families, people who live in rural communities and school-age children comprise large percentages of those lacking broadband, according to government data.

The numbers are likely much higher, experts say. The FCC determines affordability by whether the provider does or could provide service to a single user in a census block. So if a provider can serve a single area in that census block, the FCC counts the entire block as being served.

Denson said the high-level national data is needed on a local level. She said the federal data is inaccurate, rendering people who don’t have internet access invisible.

In 2016, 42.3 percent of 142,028 people who lived in the county’s rural areas had fixed internet at 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload – the FCC’s existing speed benchmark – versus 96.5 percent of the 3.1 million people who lived in the county’s urban areas, FCC data shows.

It’s not clear how many people in San Diego County currently lack reliable broadband internet. The county doesn’t track it, said Tammy Glenn, a spokeswoman for the county.

Federal and state data maps show rural areas like Fallbrook and Rainbow in the northern parts of the county and Julian in East County have extremely limited access to broadband internet. Major providers don’t provide service in parts of those communities, and few local internet service providers do. There are other pockets in Bonsall, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe and Poway and other cities where limited areas are covered by major broadband providers. 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.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the long-running issue to light, Denson said.

“Unfortunately it’s a sad time but it really highlights the fact that we need to provide access for everybody,” she said. “It’s no longer a privilege to have internet. This is for daily life … To not have access is to be left out of education, socialization and business opportunities.”

School closures countywide have revealed similar inequities. The San Diego County Office of Education and KPBS partnered earlier this month to provide students with educational programming. Families with television service can access daily television programming, but students and educators without reliable home internet won’t be able to access its library of free resources, including videos, associated lesson plans, training sessions and how-to resources for teachers. And parents are increasingly concerned about how their children will learn from home as more schools move to online learning.

San Diego Unified and the Los Angeles Unified School District jointly asked the state for $3 billion in emergency funds to accommodate online learning. San Diego Unified announced earlier this month it will move to online learning and grading beginning April 27.

Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified school board trustee, told VOSD last week that the district already has more than 40,000 laptops for students, but is asking the state to help fund internet access. Barrera said even if the state doesn’t provide the requested funding, the district will pay for the services itself.

Jena Olson, CEO of the nonprofit Kid Spark Education, which brings STEM programs to low-income schools across the country, is worried about children in low-income families losing out now that schools are closed.

“There’s a whole bunch of kiddos not getting experiences at home because of their home situations and now they’re not getting crucial experiences at home or school,” Olson said. “Then you’ve got other kiddos who may not be getting STEM or art classes in school, but come from a family where they’ve got access to those sorts of things. They can afford STEM toys and have parents with the confidence to help them.”

Olson has two kids, six and nine, in a school that receives federal Title I funding, which is meant to bolster educational opportunities for disadvantaged youths. She said her children talk to their classmates and teachers online using Zoom, but often half of the class is missing. She said she can’t help but wonder whether it’s because they don’t have access to the internet or a computer or tablet.

Lilian Serrano, a research coordinator at the National Latino Research Center in San Marcos, said some of the families their staff works with – namely Latino and immigrant families – have experienced these challenges.

“In particular we have some families worried about schoolwork since the kids do not have access to the internet, and it seems that they will be asked to finish the school year online,” Serrano said.

Colleges, universities and other trade schools in San Diego are also closed – leaving students who attend them to complete coursework online without school libraries and other workspaces.

J.J. Brawley, who’s studying acupuncture and massage, used to go to a coworking space he’s a member of to finish his homework. He said his monthly membership to the workspace was cheaper than going to a cafe every day to access the internet.

But now that the office, other cafes, libraries and most public places with internet are closed, Brawley said he has no way to do his homework and is going to have to drop out of the program and re-do the semester.

He’s staying with a friend now who doesn’t have broadband and recently lost a caretaking job where he lived and worked. He said that since he doesn’t have a place of his own, he has no way of securing reliable internet.

Government and Service Providers Are Trying to Help

For others in the county, the top U.S. internet service providers are making sweeping actions to accommodate the millions of Americans now working and learning from home.

On March 13, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission told internet service providers not to dismiss users who cannot pay their bills due to coronavirus layoffs and job closures. The FCC also called for them to waive data caps and provide wifi hotspots.

San Diego’s service providers include AT&T, Cox, Hughes Network, San Diego Broadband, SDWisp, Spectrum and Viasat, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Those companies are ramping up access to affordable internet connections for all users during peak usage – typically in the evenings.

Many are also working to address who can access broadband. Charter Communications, for example, is offering free access to Spectrum broadband and wifi for 60 days to households with students in K-12 schools or colleges, and to teachers and professors who do not already have a subscription. AT&T is working to bring internet to low-income families and households participating in the National School Lunch Program and Head Start. Viasat is working with residential and small business customers to keep them connected.

Local internet service providers San Diego Broadband and SDWisp provide North County and East County communities – including Bonsall, Escondido, Fallbrook, Julian, Vista and parts of Valley Center – with internet access where other options are limited.

Mike Bartels is an outside sales and new business development representative for San Diego Broadband, which serves areas not typically served by large cable companies. Bartels said the company is currently working with schools in Julian to bring internet to families.

He said more families with students in their home and people who need to work from home are requesting internet service.

“It’s amazing to us every time how much of an opportunity it is to bring people internet who don’t have it,” Bartels said. “The internet is like the new water; everything’s online,” he said.

Christian Gainsbrugh, a Bonsall resident who works for a technology company based in Washington, said with a little bit of investment, communities like his could be served by major providers.

“It really is failing at a state level because we don’t see infrastructure and services to help with high-speed internet,” he said. “My girls can’t do anything served on PlayStation servers. It’s a silly thing that doesn’t really matter, but as [virtual reality] takes off and some of these other things take off, we’re going to be left off the grid. I’m in Bonsall. I’m really not in the middle of nowhere.”

Carl Rebman, a professor of information systems and information technology at the University of San Diego, said better public policy-making and more effective infrastructure investments could help close the digital divide.

He said most internet infrastructure in the county is privately operated, and most companies make decisions based on projected demand. That’s why there’s better broadband access in urban and suburban areas where more people live.

Bolstering access in rural areas, therefore, isn’t a technical issue so much as a social issue, he said.

“Are we going to subsidize so rural areas have access? We say we have to have that. You have infrastructure out there, it’s just a matter of who’s doing what,” Rebman said.

He noted that more health care providers are advising patients to access coronavirus-related services through the internet.

“With all the stay-at home orders saying we need to keep people in place, we need to have people with the same access throughout; not have disparity and inequality,” he said. “It’s going to be up to the government to do it.”

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