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North County Report: Feds Helping to Bridge Digital Divide, for Now

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

A new federal program aimed at making internet access more affordable could help some North County families get connected in the short term. But experts told me that large-scale broadband investments are still needed to overcome the structural issues responsible for the digital divide.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit [1]. People who lost some income over the last year or households who earn less than $198,000, among others, are eligible to sign up for the program. It will provide people who qualify with a discount of up to $50 a month toward broadband service and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. Eligible people and families will also get a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop or tablet under certain conditions. The program is temporary and will end when money runs out or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares the public health crisis over.

Politicians, community groups and other institutions like the San Diego County Office of Education are working now to spread awareness of the FCC’s program.

The digital divide in northern San Diego County existed long before the pandemic, but the public health crisis brought 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. It’s expensive to build out fixed broadband networks in rural areas like Fallbrook and Rainbow, so many major providers just don’t. 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.

Community activists in North County and elsewhere in the region have long underscored [2] 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.

But it’s not just rural communities.

Inequitable internet access in Oceanside has been a constant on Rob Howard’s mind. Howard, an Oceanside resident who previously ran for mayor, said early in the pandemic he volunteered with community group Universidad Popular to distribute food at a school, and heard from many kids struggling to get online.

“It was a constant conversation about not having Wi-Fi,” he said.

He said the federal benefit will help, but city leaders need to focus on long-term solutions. It’s too expensive for some families in urban areas, and cities need to work on giving those families equal access, he said. “It’s going to take work for implementation,” he said. “It’s going to take political will for it to happen. But the solutions are right there in your face.”

Solutions proposed by experts include creating incentives for providers to serve underserved communities, streamlining permitting processes and accelerating deployment, and making it easier for local agencies to use fiber-optic infrastructure to deliver more free and low-cost connectivity options to those who need it.

The county and federal governments are starting to move in the meantime.

President Joe Biden in April proposed a plan [3] to invest $100 billion in broadband infrastructure to bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to people nationwide, including more than 35 percent of people in the country living in rural areas who lack access. If the plan moves forward [4], it would prioritize investment in underserved areas, and support broadband networks owned, operated or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits and others that offer more affordable plans.

The money could help people living in rural parts of North County like Borrego Springs and Fallbrook get the infrastructure they need for high-speed fiber internet and people living in urban areas like Oceanside get more affordable internet options.

Rep. Mike Levin, who represents the 49th District, including Oceanside, Vista, Carlsbad and Encinitas, said he supports the plan because those initiatives could go a long way toward improving our local broadband infrastructure and “bridging the digital divide in San Diego County by making internet service more affordable,” he wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.

Eric Mee, a spokesman for Levin, said his office has done significant outreach to residents and local organizations to promote the program and will continue to do so to help struggling families afford internet service.

Rep. Darrell Issa, who represents the 50th District, including Poway, Ramona and Borrego Springs, did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.

Until recently, the county didn’t have a regional approach to identifying where or what the needs are. Cities across North County and the region have inconsistent access to the internet. Now, SANDAG is convening cities, school leaders and other stakeholders to come up with a list of problems exacerbating the digital divide and make recommendations for what 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.

I want to hear about your experience applying for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program (or any difficulties you’re experiencing getting high-speed, reliable internet for that matter.) Message me [5] or email me. I’ll be writing more about local efforts to get families connected to the internet in the coming days.

CSUM Professor Accused of Harassing Female Students Will Teach in the Fall

In a new story, I wrote about [6] how Cal State San Marcos investigated a professor and concluded that he’d behaved inappropriately toward four female students and violated school policy and state education code.

University officials tried to fire him on those grounds but once his union stepped in, university officials quickly backtracked and let him keep his job.

Dr. Chetan Kumar will teach two classes at CSU San Marcos in the fall.

For years, my colleagues and I have reported on sexual misconduct investigations in schools [7]. Many cases show that terminations are rare. Schools and unions usually blame each other for why predatory teachers stay in the classroom.

But Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who’s also a board member of the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation, told me she’s never seen a case where a school system pushed back against a union and she’d be surprised if such cases existed.

Many schools that agree not to fire educators who harass students, or that pay them to quietly resign, frame the decision as a responsible move to protect taxpayer money, because the agreements usually include a stipulation that the employee will drop further legal action.

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