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Fifteen months into the pandemic, more than 22,000 students in the region still don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet at home, and county officials are scrambling to get them connected before schools reopen for full-time, in-person learning and people stop prioritizing efforts to bridge what’s commonly known as the digital divide.
Of those 22,000 students who aren’t connected or are under-connected, most of them live in the southern and remote rural areas of the county, according to a survey conducted by the San Diego County Office of Education.
Advocates for equitable broadband access told Voice of San Diego that kids are at risk of being left behind when schools expand digital instruction offerings after the public health crisis. Some students are going back to in-person classrooms , and efforts to get kids connected have slowed, but haven’t stopped completely, said Terry Loftus, an assistant superintendent and chief information officer for the San Diego County Office of Education, said.
“Two or three years from now, will this be a priority? It might not be prompt then so we’re trying to work fast now,” he said.
Many internet service providers don’t provide high-speed internet in rural communities like Borrego Springs, Rainbow or those on tribal lands. And internet service providers in urban areas often offer plans that are unaffordable for low-income families or don’t offer high enough speeds for kids to livestream their classes.
The San Diego Association of Governments is trying to stitch together an approach the whole region can apply to bridge the digital divide. That agency is working with school leaders, organizations and nonprofits that work with schools and other stakeholders from rural, tribal and low-income communities to come up with a list of problems exacerbating the digital divide in order to better address them.
Loftus said the federal and state governments still need to make serious financial investments into infrastructure and broadband in San Diego County’s backcountry to bring high-speed, reliable internet to the 22,000 kids without it.
In April, President Joe Biden proposed a plan to invest $100 billion in broadband infrastructure to tackle the problem nationwide, including to students and families in rural areas who lack access. If the plan moves forward, it would prioritize investment in underserved areas, and support certain broadband networks that offer more affordable plans. The Biden administration has since lowered its spending proposal after lobbying by Senate Republicans and multiple internet providers. His team wrote in a memo that investing less money into broadband now means it’s going to take longer to achieve nationwide access to high-speed internet.
The money could help students living in rural areas 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.
Kemi Pavlocak, a parent who lives in Borrego Springs and owns a market in Ranchita, is pushing Borrego Springs Unified School District school officials to advocate for internet options for students like satellite internet systems and Starlink’s internet services and subsidize those plans for families who need them. (Local internet service providers San Diego Broadband and SDWisp provide North and East County communities with internet access where other options are limited. Starlink, created by a company that designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft SpaceX, is a new satellite-based system that offers a broadband internet system for rural and remote communities.)
Paying for internet there isn’t an option for families struggling to cover basic needs like water or food. Pavlocak said Borrego Springs and nearby Warner and Ranchita lack infrastructure for fiber broadband, but too many families wouldn’t be able to afford it even if it was there, she said, economic realities that inhibit economic development and widen the achievement gap for kids from the area.
“They’re trying to eat and make it to the next day,” Pavlocak said.
Outside help is crucial to getting the students living in rural and tribal communities connected.
Matthew Rantanen is working on getting wireless broadband installed in rural and tribal communities. Big-name internet service providers don’t operate there because the populations are small, and it’s cost inefficient for them. Rantanen, a director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, said kids who live in tribal communities have long been left behind. Even before the pandemic, some students who live there and go to county schools weren’t able to check their homework assignments because they were posted online, and they didn’t have access.
“They didn’t have internet while the rest of their classmates did,” he said.
Tribal communities are also changing cultural norms by bringing technology into their communities, Rantanen said. His group’s long-term goal is to create a Tribal Digital Village to bring internet services to those communities.
But it’s not just kids living in rural and tribal communities who need help.
Community groups are stepping in to help people in low-income, urban areas get connected.
Pillars of the Community, a faith-based criminal justice advocacy group, is helping families in communities like Logan Heights, City Heights and Barrio Logan sign up for a a new federal program aimed at making internet access more affordable in the short term.
Families who need economic support and qualify for the Federal Communications Commission Emergency Broadband Benefit will get a discount of up to $50 a month toward broadband service. People who qualify on tribal lands will get $75 per month. Families will also get a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop or tablet under certain conditions.
Laila Aziz, a program director for the Pillars of the Community, said many community members are only able to go online on their phones because they don’t have laptops or tablets, including kids who have to do schoolwork on phones.
Her group is setting up in impoverished communities at liquor stores, taco shops and other places people in the community frequent and helping them sign up for discounted internet plans. On June 5, the group will help people who qualify sign up at a liquor store on Imperial Avenue. “We’re meeting them where they are,” she said.
But Aziz and other advocates warn that families who can’t afford internet now will have to find another solution when the program ends – either when federal money runs out, or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares the public health crisis over.)
Some schools across the county are using coronavirus relief funding and other money right now to help families pay for internet at home. In a memo, the San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold told school leaders to continue using their own funds before encouraging families to transition into the federal emergency program.
Loftus said his office has teamed up with satellite service companies for some rural areas and tribal communities. The county office has a partnership with Viasat, based out of Carlsbad, and is working to get 50 families on tribal lands connected to StarLink’s internet connectivity services for two years. But there’s nothing as robust and reliable as fiber and physical wired connections to the home, he said.
“The digital divide component has been an equity issue for many, many years prior to the pandemic, Loftus said. “And it will be an issue for beyond.”