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Marin County, Calif., Approves Low-Income Internet Program

Through a new county program, 300 low-income families will have access to free Internet service. The program is similar to a Wi-Fi project that launched in San Rafael's Canal neighborhood last year.

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(TNS) — Marin County approved an initiative this week to provide free Internet to nearly 300 low-income families in Marin City as well as a community Wi-Fi network for the next two years.

Similar to the Wi-Fi project that launched in San Rafael's Canal neighborhood last year, the Marin City project aims to address longstanding inequities in Internet access in Marin. These inequities have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for students who have had to rely on the Internet for their education this past year.

"We simply have a large number of households all across the county and the state and the country that still don't have access to regular stable affordable Internet," said Itoco Garcia, superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District. "For those families, this rapid shift to distance learning has been a tremendous barrier to equal access to education."

Using a $150,000 contribution from the Marin Community Foundation, the county plans to provide up to 300 Marin City households with free Comcast Internet service for two years, particularly focusing on residents at the Golden Gate Village public housing project and nearby residences such as Ridgeway Apartments. The Marin County Office of Education and the school district have been working to identify eligible families.

The Marin County Foundation had also provided $335,000 toward the creation of the Canal neighborhood Wi-Fi network.

"It really comes from the issue of equity of opportunity for the young people in those two communities," said Thomas Peters, the foundation's chief executive. "It's a larger issue beyond that, but it certainly presents the challenge and therefore the opportunity to have those young people have the same access to the Internet for research for homework and for learning that other young people in Marin enjoy just as a matter of regular home life."

The benefit of using Comcast is that Golden Gate Village had been previously wired for Comcast service about a decade ago, according to Javier Trujillo, a county technology official. Whereas the Canal Internet project took months of setup and required new the purchase of new equipment, Golden Gate Village households will be able to receive Comcast service about two weeks after they qualify.

"The school district is going to be our arm to communicate with students and students' families to get them access to the access codes," Trujillo said.

The Comcast "Internet essentials" program is available to households that qualify for aid such as the National School Lunch Program, housing assistance, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Social Security income.

Comcast announced that it plans to double the Internet speed of this program to 50 megabytes per second for downloads and 6 megabytes for uploads on March 1. This speed should be enough for students to reliably attend video classes, Trujillo said.

The median yearly income for Marin City households is $49,000, with 34% of the households living on less than $25,000 per year, according to the county. Many families lacked a stable Wi-Fi connection even before the need for distance learning and job losses caused by the pandemic, Garcia said.

The school district and Marin City library worked to provide mobile hotspots to families who needed them this past year, but those could only go so far, especially if multiple students had to be using them at the same time, Garcia said.

"We realized quickly that we had to do a lot more," Garcia said.

While most students at Bayside MLK Jr. Academy have returned to in-class learning, hundreds of students at Willow Creek Academy are still learning from home, Garcia said. Many students will also be behind in their education after this year.

Garcia said he hopes the new program will allow for innovative ways to make up for these setbacks through the creation of online intervention programs.

"Distance learning and intervention that takes place over a computer-based platform will be a really critical important feature ability to recover," he said.

The county also intends to create a public outdoor Wi-Fi network similar to that in the Canal neighborhood. The Wi-Fi network will have access points at the Marin City library, Bayview Martin Luther King Academy Jr. and a county building near Rocky Graham Park.

The Wi-Fi service will have backup power in case of outages and can also be used at local events, Trujillo said.

Additionally, the county is providing about $63,600 to upgrade the internal network at the Sausalito Marin City School District. This upgrade is meant to benefit staffers who have to work on campus.

"I hope that the work that has been done in the Canal and the work happening here in Marin City can really serve as a model for the rest of the county and the state," Garcia said.

©2021 The Marin Independent Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.