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San Diego Area Grapples With Bridging Digital Divide

As more of San Diegans' work, school and medical care take place online, rural communities are falling behind because of deficient broadband access, a new report from the county finds.

San Diego, Calif.
San Diego, Calif.
Shutterstock/View Apart
(TNS) — As more of San Diegans' work, school and medical care take place online, rural communities are falling behind because of deficient broadband access, a new report from the county finds.

About 106,000 people in San Diego County lack broadband internet connections, based on an analysis of census data, the study said. Because of that, residents miss public meetings, struggle with remote work and school, can't access telehealth and don't receive emergency notifications, said Elise Rothschild, broadband specialist for the county.

The study examined so-called internet deserts — areas with inadequate or non-existent broadband access — and neighborhoods where residents may have access to internet service but can't afford it.

To bridge those affordability and accessibility gaps, the county will hire a broadband consultant to help develop plans to lay fiber-optic lines in areas without high-speed broadband and determine how to fund them.

Officials held focus groups with 175 organizations, hosted 12 workshops in unincorporated areas and surveyed 522 residents. More than half said internet access isn't available in their community, 19 percent said it's too expensive and 15 percent complained it's too slow.

Warner Springs resident Melissa Krogh participated in the report as a member of her Community Emergency Response Team, and pointed to the real-life effects of limited internet access at her home — from difficulty receiving wildfire warnings to her children's trouble submitting their homework assignments online.

"We live in a world where everything has become internet-shaped," Krogh said. "The pandemic definitely highlighted how much we live in that digital world, but the rural community does not really have an equitable point of access."

Fallbrook, Spring Valley, Borrego Springs, Potrero and Jacumba have some of the county's lowest levels of broadband access, the report found.

North and East County communities such as Valley Center and Mountain Empire lack internet infrastructure, and residents there often pay higher prices for lower-speed internet service, the report found.

That squares with Krogh's experience in a hilly community where many homes lack line-of-sight connections to cell towers. "Topography plays a huge role in whether or not people have access, and what their access looks like," she said.

Until recently, her family shared three cellular hot spots among four people, which allowed them to browse websites, send emails and sometimes attend Zoom meetings. A satellite internet plan would have cost more than $150 per month, she said, without streaming or virtual meeting capabilities.

This summer, she said, she got a better option for satellite internet service, which has improved their connection.

Other areas including Spring Valley and Lakeside have access to internet service but report lower rates of use because of affordability, digital literacy or lack of digital devices.

In general, communities with poor internet access were more rural, with lower income and education levels and fewer English speakers, the report found — so the digital divide can compound existing economic disparities.

To improve access, the county aims to work with private internet service providers to install fiber-optic lines in key communities and increase speed for areas with inadequate capacity.

The Federal Communications Commission has set minimum broadband speeds of 24 megabits per second for downloads, referring to the speed at which users can retrieve online files such as streamed videos or music, and 3 megabits per second for uploads — but those speeds aren't fast enough for households where multiple people may be using the internet at the same time.

"Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a pressing need for faster upload speeds, as the use of webcams to videoconference for everything from work to school to telehealth has become more common," the report noted.

The 2021 federal infrastructure package allocated about $65 billion for expanding broadband nationwide and set minimum upload and download speeds of 100 and 20 megabits per second, respectively — significantly higher than the FCC minimum. The San Diego Association of Governments has also adopted those standards.

Efforts to improve backcountry internet access will include so-called "middle-mile" projects, which lay fiber-optic lines that deliver broadband service to communities, and "last-mile" projects that connect those lines to individual neighborhoods or homes, Rothschild said. Whenever possible, the county will try to combine those with other public works, such as highway improvements.

The report estimates that it will cost about $100 million to build broadband infrastructure for all of the county's unincorporated communities, along with an additional $15 million to ensure that most residents adopt it and about $6.6 million to staff the project for 10 years.

The county has some pandemic relief money available for broadband expansion through the 2021 stimulus package, Rothschild said, and will apply for other state and federal grants.

© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.