NEWS: Digital divide solutions sought across Southern California

Posted December 11th, 2020

By ERIC-PAUL JOHNSON | ejohnson@scng.com | The Press-Enterprise
PUBLISHED: December 11, 2020 at 7:13 p.m. | UPDATED: December 16, 2020 at 3:37 p.m.
A new Southern California effort aims to address an inequality spotlighted by the coronavirus pandemic — the digital divide.

Inland entrepreneur Steve PonTell and San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman are bringing together leaders in business, government, technology and other fields to find ways to close the divide.

The divide refers to the gap between people who have access to broadband internet service and those who do not. Former state Assemblyman Lloyd Levine estimates that nearly 25% of Californians either lack the access, devices or skills to connect or experience a combination of all three.

In Long Beach, government officials have dealt with the divide — primarily based on income in the city — since before the pandemic, and created a Technology and Innovation Department two years ago in a reorganization. On Wednesday, Dec. 9, that department announced a program to give out computers and hot spots to ease the gap.

Specifically, more than 550 tablets with keyboards and 250 mobile hotspots with one-year paid internet service plans will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis to low-income Long Beach residents. The program is financed from $1 million in federal CARES Act money set aside by the Long Beach council for technology fixes.

Long Beach Unified and other school districts have loaned similar equipment to students. But many Long Beach homes do not have adequate internet, particularly if there is more than one student in the home.

Statewide, the reasons for the divide often depend on where one lives. In rural areas, the top problem is lack of infrastructure. In urban areas, it’s related to income, Levine said.

“It does not help if access is there but you can’t afford services or devices, and vice versa,” said Levine, co-founder of the UC Riverside Center for Broadband Policy and Digital Literacy and president of the Filament Strategies consulting firm in Sacramento.

“The real frustrating part is that this divide has remained relatively flat over the past decade,” he said in a recent interview. “Technology continues to make great advances, but many people are still getting left behind.”

State Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) has introduced legislation to help bridge the gap, and potentially lessen the impact of the profit motive for internet providers. On Monday, Dec. 7, she put forward The Broadband for All Act that would extend a telephone surcharge to create a fund as a source for grants and loan guarantees for local governments. It also would change regulations to allow local governments to issue bonds and install broadband infrastructure including fiber optic lines, and explore ways to make access affordable for all.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the deeply entrenched digital divide, which has left many lower income, Latino, African American, and rural communities without access to high-speed broadband services,” Gonzalez said last week in an interview.

“Whether it be children doing homework outside of fast food restaurants, or medically-fragile individuals who can’t access services through tele-health care, the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the inequality in access to broadband that has existed in our state for years,” she added.

Statewide, leaders are still discussing how to tackle the issue and don’t yet have a list of recommendations. But they did hold a recent forum to air out possible approaches.

“This is a true crisis,” Sunne McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, based in Concord, said during the forum, hosted by the Los Angeles County Business Federation. “It has been exposed as a digital cliff.”

PonTell is among the business leaders hoping to find solutions to the digital divide problem. PonTell, president and CEO of the Rancho Cucamonga-based National Community Renaissance, which develops affordable housing communities, helped organize the forum.

“We have known about the digital divide for several years, and yet we still have this major problem,” PonTell said. “That made me ask, ‘What’ve we been doing all this time?’”

“I think everyone has been so focused and concerned with solving their own problems, and there hasn’t been enough communication happening across the board.”

Panelists said some advancements have been made during the pandemic, notably in the education and health fields.

Many school districts tapped into government dollars to buy and issue digital devices and hotspots so students could take online classes. For example, in early August, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors earmarked $10 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Riverside County Board of Education Foundation’s All For One fundraiser, which seeks to ensure every student in the county is connected online.

More people are using online health services, but many patients still lack the tools to access them.

Related linksInland schools round up laptops as online learning resumesRiverside County schools foundation seeks help to close digital divideRemote learning exposes racial and economic divide in LA County, say USC researchersThis proposal from a new report on how to close Long Beach’s digital divide comes with a hefty price tagThe harsh realities of living in Long Beach — without the Internet

“This pandemic has shown that inequality really can be a life-or-death matter,” said John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan, which helps provide health care for low-income individuals and families.

Projects are in motion to bring broadband internet access to underserved areas.

Charter Communications recently applied for state grants to provide technology to residents. The California Public Utilities Commission awarded more than $4 million to four Inland Empire projects: Country Homes Mobile Parks in Ontario, Monterey Mobile Home Village in Montclair, Villa Montclair Mobile Home Park in Montclair and Soboba Springs Mobile Estates near San Jacinto.

Internet service providers spend billions of dollars every year to the build and improve the infrastructure for high-speed internet but still face obstacles. In rural areas, for example, the cost of digging trenches and laying cable or fiber is greater than the demand for service. And service providers often have to go through plenty of governmental red tape.

Curt Hagman, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, is among the leaders in government hoping to push for policies to help close the digital divide. Hagman, the chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, said government and state agencies have a significant role.

A board member of the Southern California Association of Governments and chairman of its Emerging Technologies Committee, Hagman said SCAG and the San Diego Association of Governments have discussed ways to streamline the permitting process and update building codes. Government subsidies for service providers offering affordable rates to low-income households could also help bridge the gap, he said.

“We want to help solve this problem, not be the problem,” Hagman said. “We have to realize that closing the divide is for the common good of society and will have a significant impact on so many lives.”

Staff Writer Hunter Lee contributed to this story.

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