San Diego: Internet Access Challenges Slowing Disaster Relief Efforts

By: Joseph Woodson

For many, internet access allowed life to proceed through online formats during the COVID-19 pandemic. For others, transitioning to relying on internet access comes with many challenges. Internet access challenges include too many siblings on a shared network, inability to pay utility bills, service outages, etc. Lacking internet access causes more hardship during a pandemic because the health risks associated with human-to-human interaction are increased. Today, many cannot access unemployment resources, telehealth services, accurate pandemic guidelines, AA meetings, church services, and other life necessities without internet access.  Without internet access, adversely impacted individuals are disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

Internet access is not universal. However, its role in modern life is increasingly essential. Significant disparities remain between individuals’ capacities online: wired access, wireless access, broadband speeds, network traffic, inadequate technology, inability to use the technology, inability to pay for the technology, mobile service, no mobile service, etc. An adversely impacted individual’s insufficient internet access disrupts their timely access to pandemic resources and information. Pandemic recovery efforts largely depend on adversely impacted individuals’ access to pandemic resources and information. Access to such disaster relief resources reduces human suffering and promotes recovery. Therefore, promoting internet access should be considered strategic to the government’s pandemic response and to future government responses to national disasters. As citizens adopt the internet as an essential utility, legal thinkers must understand the expanding role internet access has community-wide, statewide, nationally, and internationally. This blog series addresses internet access challenges at various government levels during the COVID-19 pandemic to understand the necessity of universal internet access.

State Senator Ben Hueso recently introduced California Senate Bill 1058, Communications: Moore Universal Telephone Service Act and Internet Service Providers. (Amended version May 6, 2020).[i]  It is also referred to as the Digital Divide Relief Plan, and its purpose is to address internet access during crisis. Senator Hueso explained internet access plays an essential role in his district because stay-at-home orders and social distancing policies changed the way people operate businesses, socialize with one another, and educate their children.[ii] Zoom meetings, Facetime calls, and online coursework require internet access. However, California’s socio-economic realities have spawned a significant digital divide.[iii] The dividing line is largely drawn on income and technological knowhow.[iv]

Senator Hueso is taking action to make internet access more affordable for those adversely impacted during the COVID-19 crisis. He is proposing legislation which requires private internet service providers to take initiative and accommodate those lacking internet access during crisis.[v]

SB 1058 requires the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to direct internet providers to file emergency operations plans that lay out how these companies will coordinate with emergency responders and ensure reliable access to broadband telecommunications in the event of a disaster or emergency. The bill will require these plans to identify how internet providers will supply affordable access to these services for people affected by disasters and emergencies, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.[vi]

According to Sarah Smith, Senate Staffer, Senate Bill 1058 “addresses both short-term and long-term needs to ensure that California has the communications resources and plans in place to support ongoing efforts to protect Californians’ health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.”[vii] Senator Huesa urges that “Senate Bill 1058 is needed to establish requirements for reliable telecommunications that will better prepare us for ongoing and future disasters and emergencies.”[viii]

Internet access’ integral role in communities revealed itself in the rapid transition to education online during the pandemic. Gustavo Solis’ interviews with local superintendents of Sweetwater Union High School District and San Ysidro School District demonstrates evidence of a real digital divide.[ix] Frankly put, half of Ysidro district students—nearly 5000 students—have no internet access away from campus.[x] Meanwhile, over 3000 families in the Sweetwater District have no reliable internet access at home.[xi] Adversely impacted children disproportionately receive ineffective education in transitions to online formats due to internet access challenges. Universal internet access would eliminate these disproportionate challenges because everyone would have internet access per se. Universal internet access means all individuals have sufficient telecommunication abilities to meet their essential needs (needs such as online education, etc.).

Internet access has transformed life in America.[xii] From communicating with one another to ordering dinner to educating children, the internet’s public utility function in America was thoroughly cemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.[xiii] Almost all responses at the local, state, federal, and international levels of government structurally relied on internet access. Stay-at-home orders are only practical through internet access. In sum, making internet access universal is vital to our pandemic recovery efforts and an important step towards fortifying community infrastructures for future emergencies and disasters.

[i] 2019 California Senate Bill No. 1058, California 2019-2020 Regular Session

2019 CA S.B. 1058 (NS) May 6, 2020. (Westlaw Edge).

[ii] Gustavo Solis, State Sen. Hueso Introduces Bill to Address California’s Digital Divide, The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 21, 2020. Date Accessed 05/23/2020.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Douglas Broom, Coronavirus Has Exposed the Digital Divided Like Never Before, World Economic Forum, April 22, 2020. Date Accessed 05/23/2020.

[v] Gustavo Solis. 2020. 

[vi] SB 1058 Fact Sheet.

[vii] Email Communication with Sarah Smith of Senator Hueso’s Office (Sarah kindly forwarded me a SB 1058 fact sheet).

[viii] Gustavo Solis. 2020.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] George B. Delta and Jeffery H. Matsuura, Law of the Internet, Chapter Nine: Regulation of Access, Interoperability, and Services, Aspen Publishers, 4th Edition 2020-2 Supplement, Section 9.02. (2020).

[xiii] Broom, World Economic Forum, Id.

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