San Diego broadband access: 100k no high speed internet

As more San Diegans’ jobs, schools and health care go online, rural communities are falling behind because of a lack of broadband access, a new report from the county finds.

About 106,000 people in San Diego County do not have a broadband Internet connection, according to the study, based on an analysis of census data. As a result, residents miss public meetings, struggle with remote work and school, can’t use 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 have access to internet service but cannot afford it.

To address these affordability and affordability gaps, the county will hire a broadband consultant to develop plans for laying fiber optic lines in areas without high-speed broadband and determine how to finance them.

Officials held focus groups with 175 organizations, held 12 workshops in unincorporated areas and surveyed 522 residents. More than half said there was no internet access in their community, 19 percent complained it was too expensive and 15 percent complained it was too slow.

Warner Springs resident Melissa Krogh participated in the report as a member of the Community Emergency Response Team and pointed to the real-life effects of limited Internet access in her home — from having trouble getting wildfire alerts to her children submitting homework online.

“We live in a world where everything is becoming Internet-based,” Krogh said. “The pandemic has definitely highlighted how much we live in this digital world, but the rural community doesn’t really have a fair outlet.”

Fallbrook, Spring Valley, Borrego Springs, Potrero and Jacumba have the lowest levels of broadband in the county, the report said.

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

This is consistent with Krogh’s experience in a mountainous community where many homes do not have line of sight to cell towers. “Topography plays a big role in whether or not people have access and what their access looks like,” he said.

Until recently, her family shared three mobile hotspots between the four of them, which allowed them to browse websites, send emails and occasionally participate in Zoom meetings. A satellite Internet plan will cost more than $150 a month, he said, without streaming or virtual meeting capabilities.

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

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

In general, communities with poor Internet access were more rural, with lower income and education levels, and fewer English speakers, so the digital divide may exacerbate existing economic disparities.

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

The Federal Communications Commission has set a minimum broadband speed of 24 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for downloads, citing the speed at which users can access online files such as streaming videos or music, but those speeds are not fast. enough for households where more than one person can use the internet at the same time.

“There is a pressing need for faster download speeds since the pandemic began, as the use of webcams to video conferencing becomes more common for everything from work to school to telehealth,” the report said.

The 2021 federal infrastructure package allocated nearly $65 billion to expand broadband across the country 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 these standards.

Rothschild said efforts to improve Internet access in the country include “middle-mile” projects, which lay fiber-optic lines that provide broadband service to communities, and “last-mile” projects, which connect those lines to individual neighborhoods or homes. . Whenever possible, the county will try to combine them 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, an additional $15 million to ensure most residents receive it, and about $6.6 million in staff over 10 years in the project.

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

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