A special thanks to our sponsors Verizon and AT&T. Without your contributions, this event would not have been a success.
The digital divide existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the pandemic amplified the issues of the digital divide, it exposed the breadth of its impact and fueled the widening divide. The pandemic put government, business, and community leaders on notice to act swiftly during our current recovery to bridge the growing digital divide, or else, face getting left behind.
On July 20, sf.citi discussed the current state of the digital divide in San Francisco and beyond with San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, Rudy Reyes, West Region Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Verizon, Kami Griffiths, Executive Director of Community Tech Network, and Manny Yekutiel, small business owner. They each shared solutions they’re working on to address this crisis and advance digital equity, and how others can do the same.
Learn more about the efforts to bridge the digital divide by watching sf.citi’s conversation with San Francisco leaders at Bridging the Divide: The Road to a Digital-First SF.
The afternoon kicked off with Rudy Reyes, West Region Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Verizon breaking down the approach to bridging the digital divide into a three-legged stool: improving access to the internet, making internet services more affordable, and having regular consumers and small business owners understand the value of broadband and possess the digital tools, skills, and resources so they can adopt digital advancements.
MAKING BROADBAND ACCESS STRONGER AND MORE RELIABLE
At the heart of the digital divide conversation, lies broadband access. The modern way of life in America—as solidified by the pandemic—runs online. Access to a strong and reliable internet is essential to participate in everything from homework to telehealth conversations. Nevertheless, throughout the country, including in pockets of dense urban areas like San Francisco, it is almost outright impossible to get quality internet service.
City services such as libraries and certain nonprofit organizations helped fill in this gap by becoming lifelines to individuals that have been left behind by the current broadband infrastructure. However, that all went away during the pandemic. According to Supervisor Haney, this gap for many underserved San Francisco residents became a siren to City officials that they need to act fast in addressing broadband access.
The pandemic put an emphasis on access, places where people accessed the internet such as libraries or services such as drop-in centers. It was a moment of reckoning that there are life and death consequences when people don’t have internet access or the digital skills to survive. It really created a sense of urgency with City Hall that this needs to be addressed.
—Matt Haney, District 6 Supervisor
The Road to 5G in San Francisco
To address the root issue of getting people connected in San Francisco, the City must improve and expand its broadband infrastructure. The City’s current broadband infrastructure doesn’t reach all San Francisco residents and it runs on outdated 4G technology. While 4G was considered revolutionary when it launched 10 years ago, the City will need to promote all solutions of 5G, fiber, and more to help fix the divide.
After flirting with a citywide fiber plan in the past, 5G expansion is the City’s best available option for broadband expansion. 5G, which is a wireless technology, can provide fixed internet access due to its gigabit connectivity, similar to fiber, meaning that there are no data caps. The hope is that widespread 5G adoption will help solve the digital divide in large parts for many more people.
To achieve this 5G rollout, Rudy says we need to break past the biggest barrier to getting people connected in San Francisco, the City’s expansive red tape. This is where the government needs to be a partner in upgrading broadband infrastructure by streamlining the process and not an obstacle that could lead to exacerbating the digital divide by slowing 5G infrastructure from being built. In San Francisco, it can feel like private industry has to beg San Francisco officials to build 5G infrastructure whereas other cities are more eager than ever to upgrade. 5G is not magic, it requires capital investments and infrastructure.
CREATING MORE AFFORDABLE INTERNET SERVICES
Internet services are expensive. It doesn’t matter how great broadband access someone has if they can’t pay for it then it might as well not exist. This is especially troublesome due to society’s ever-increasing reliance on the digital world.
People also can’t do much shopping around for the best deal. As Manny Yekutiel, a small business owner in San Francisco pointed out in the discussion, there’s not a lot of competition in the market. Not because options don’t exist, but because individuals and small businesses are at the whim of what their building is wired for.
Much of the pricing on internet services should get better once the City expands and upgrades its broadband infrastructure. This would open the market up for more competition and as mentioned earlier, eliminate data caps. In the meantime though, there are a few other options for providing low-cost internet services.
First, when looking at the market, a few of the telecom companies provide low-cost internet plans to those that qualify including AT&T’s ACCESS, Comcast’s Internet Essentials, and Verizon’s Lifeline. From the federal government, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) during the pandemic to help families and households struggling to afford internet services.
Then in San Francisco, there’s the fiber to housing program. Through a collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the City’s Department of Technology, and Monkeybrains, the program uses the City’s existing fiber to bring free high-speed internet to residents in affordable housing units. As an affordable partnership that utilizes existing infrastructure, Kami Griffiths suggested that more local governments should replicate the idea.
SPREADING ADOPTION OF DIGITAL LITERACY, TOOLS, AND SKILLS
To participate in today’s digital landscape, individuals must have the digital tools, literacy, and skills. For far too many, however, they lack all or most of these essentials. From seniors to low-income communities, the evolution of technology far outpaces the gaps our society has in teaching digital literacy and skills and providing up-to-date technology.
There needs to be a greater emphasis and investment on improving education in digital skills needed to learn, work, and communicate effectively online. By lifting communities to even the most basic levels of digital proficiency, it should make it easier for people to adopt technological advancements such as broadband expansion and want to participate in the digital world. Through a collective effort between all levels of government, telecom companies, and nonprofit organizations that provide digital literacy training and education, such as Community Tech Network, can make serious headway in San Francisco and throughout the country.
Adoption [means] do you have a device, do they know how to use the device, do they understand the relevancy of it. And what we’re seeing is that people lack access and some don’t see why they need it, especially older adults who are insecure about the internet and their digital skills.
—Kami Griffiths, Executive Director, Community Tech Network
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AND HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION TODAY
Not everyone heads a state that can invest $6 billion to help bridge the digital divide by expanding broadband infrastructure and enhancing internet access for underserved communities like Governor Gavin Newsom. For us normies, check out the recommendations from our panel on how you can learn more and get involved with helping bridge the digital divide in your community.
- Give back to your community by becoming a volunteer digital coach with Community Tech Network. In person or remotely, there’s a tremendous need to help adult learners with digital literacy and skills.
- Donate your old devices to help meet the high demand for free and low-cost devices. Bay Area residents can donate their old tech devices to Tech Exchange who refurbish unused devices to distribute to those most in need.
- Digital Inclusion Trailblazers: This National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) initiative provides an advocacy tool for local, state, and national digital inclusion leadership, and provides a useful database of examples for communities interested in taking similar steps themselves.
- Next Century Cities: This organization highlights best practices in government agencies for digital inclusion.
- SF Digital Equity Playbook: This playbook is designed for organizations that want to help their clients get connected or learn digital skills. It contains information on free internet access locations, discount internet programs, digital skill training curriculum and strategies, and more.
- Connecting the Unconnected: This Community Tech Network webinar provides an overview of the new digital divide issues caused by the pandemic and the solutions they’re implementing to counteract them.
- Accelerating America: This white paper by Verizon outlines many of the challenges and opportunities of building out broadband infrastructure.