A new report from the county finds that as more of San Diegans’ business, school and medical care is done online, rural communities are being left behind due to a lack of broadband access.
About 106,000 people in San Diego County lack broadband internet connections, the study said, based on an analysis of census data. Because of this, residents miss public meetings, struggle with remote work and school, can’t access telehealth and don’t receive emergency notifications, said Elise Rothschild, county broadband specialist.
The study examined so-called Internet deserts – areas with insufficient or non-existent access to broadband – and neighborhoods where residents might be able to access Internet service. But you can’t afford it.
To close these affordability and accessibility gaps, the province will hire a broadband consultant to help develop plans for laying fiber optic lines in areas that do not have high-speed broadband and determine how to finance it.
Officials held focus groups with 175 organizations, hosted 12 workshops in unincorporated areas and surveyed 522 residents. More than half said that internet access is not available in their communities, 19 percent said it was too expensive and 15 percent complained that it was too slow.
Warner Springs resident Melissa Krug, who participated in the report as a member of the Community Emergency Response Team, noted the real-life impacts of limited Internet access in her home — from the difficulty of receiving wildfire warnings to her children’s problems submitting their homework online.
“We live in a world where everything is in the form of the Internet,” Krug said. “The pandemic has definitely highlighted how much we live in this digital world, but the rural community really doesn’t have a fair access point.”
The report found that Fallbrook, Spring Valley, Borrego Springs, Potrero and Jacumba have some of the lowest levels of broadband access in the county.
The report found that North and East County communities such as Valley Center and Mountain Empire lack Internet infrastructure, and residents often pay higher prices for low-speed Internet service.
This is in line with Krug’s experience in an up-and-coming 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 hotspots between four people, allowing them to browse websites, send emails, and sometimes attend Zoom meetings. She said a satellite internet plan would have cost more than $150 a month, without live streaming or virtual meeting capabilities.
This summer, she said, she got a better satellite internet service option, which improved connectivity.
Other areas including Spring Valley and Lakeside have access to the Internet but report lower usage rates due to affordability and digital literacy or lack of digital devices.
In general, communities with poor internet access were more rural, with lower levels of income and education and fewer English speakers, the report found – so the digital divide can exacerbate 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 speeds in areas with insufficient capacity.
The FCC has set broadband speeds at a minimum of 24 megabits per second for downloads, referring to the speed at which users can retrieve online files such as streaming videos or music, and 3 megabits per second for uploads — but those speeds aren’t fast enough. For households where several people may use the Internet at the same time.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an urgent need for faster loading speeds, as the use of webcams for videoconferencing for everything from work to school to telehealth has become more common,” the report noted.
Federal infrastructure package for 2021 It allocated about 65 billion dollars to expand broadband nationwide and set minimum upload and download speeds at 100 and 20 megabits per second, respectively — well above the FCC’s minimum. The San Diego Association of Governments has also adopted these standards.
Rothschild said efforts to improve Internet access in backcountry would include so-called “middle mile” projects, which lay fiber-optic lines that provide broadband service to communities, and “last-mile” projects that connect those lines to neighborhoods or individual 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 would cost about $100 million to build broadband infrastructure for all unincorporated communities in the county, along with an additional $15 million to ensure most residents adopt it and about $6.6 million to staff the project for 10 years.
Rothschild said the province has some pandemic relief money available to expand broadband through the 2021 stimulus package, and will apply for other state and federal grants.