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Could COVID Inspire Permanent Changes in Statewide Internet Access?

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By Bala Thenappan • August 14, 2020

The majority of California students will engage in some form of remote learning this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The onset of remote learning has inspired various efforts to broaden internet access across California. 

Based on a 2018 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 6 percent of American kids between the ages of 3 and 18 – over 3 million in total – lack home internet access. According to several state leaders, roughly 1.2 million of those kids live in California. Internet access is particularly low in African-American homes, low income areas, and rural areas. An EdSource study found that only 34% of rural households are subscribed to an internet provider.

There have been efforts around the country to at least temporarily broaden internet access during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the government of South Bend, Indiana deployed 30 buses that are equipped with wifi to various sites in the city, allowing kids without home internet access to access district wifi at those sites. In April, after calls from California leaders urging tech companies to address the issue, Google announced it would provide free chromebooks to 4,000 students and free wifi to ~100,000 rural households for at least 3 months.

Here at home, the ABC Unified School District, which serves the communities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, and parts of Lakewood, Long Beach, and Norwalk has attempted to address the problem. Dr. Mary Sieu, Superintendent of the ABC told HMG-LCCN, “To meet the extraordinary needs during this time of online learning, we have provided over 5,000 devices and 1,100 internet hotspots to families in need. Fortunately, our district achieved a 1:1 student to device ratio, making it easier to check out devices, like Chromebooks, to our students.”

 However, some activists have urged for more permanent changes to the state’s broadband infrastructure. A group of school members and educators across California recently formed an organization titled the “Digital Equity Coalition.” In an email to the Cerritos Community News, the group wrote that it’s goal is to “make broadband internet available to every student who needs it for digital learning, both now and permanently.” 

So far, the “Digital Equity Coalition” has helped get the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to approve over $7 million in funding to set up hot spots for over 15,000 residents and the city of San Jose to spend over $3 million to broaden internet access. It also has goals beyond the pandemic.

One specific proposal that has gained the support of the Digital Equity Coalition and many others amidst the pandemic is having more cities set up their own broadband networks. According to BroadbandNow, there are 331 municipal networks in the United States. Also according to BroadbandNow, people who live in areas with a municipal network, on average, pay less for internet access than people who don’t. 

Internet Service Providers, like Comcast, typically lobby state legislators to prevent municipalities from setting up broadband networks. Based on a 2019 article in Vice, 26 states either restrict or ban municipalities from setting up broadband networks, even if the municipality isn’t serviced by any private company in some cases.  

In 2018, the California state government eliminated all legal barriers to municipal broadband. But change has been slow. Today, as reported by ConnectCalifornia, there are 17 municipal networks in the state – but only 6 offer residential services (the rest only provide business services). 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight inequities in internet access, it is likely that calls for governmental intervention in broadband will grow louder. Jorge Pacheco Jr., Vice President of the Oak Grove School District Board of Education and a member of the “Digital Equity Coalition”, explained, “Internet access is a human right…Education, healthcare, housing, employment, all of it requires internet access these days, especially during this global pandemic, which is why closing the digital divide now and for all should be one of our greatest priorities.”

Related: Childhood and Adult Vaccinations are Critically Important, Especially During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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