California: The Digital Divide and Approaches to Securing Telecommunications During Crisis

By: Joseph Woodson

California’s Digital Divide

From day to day transactions to disaster preparedness, our modern society increasingly relies on internet access.[1] In 2017, 74% of households in California had broadband subscriptions, while 90% of households in California reported using the internet in some lesser form (such as mobile service, friendly hotspots, antiquated dial-up connections, etc.).[2]  Even prior to the COVID- 19 Stay-At-Home orders, more than 60% of teachers reported utilizing online formatted homework programs to educate students.[3] California’s school districts increasingly rely on internet access during the Stay-at-Home orders.

Recently, many Californians adopted online shopping due to the increased health risks associated with human interactions during the pandemic. Director of the Food Policy, Health, and Hunger Research Program at UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, Hilary Seligman contends the ability to shop online is a matter of equity.[4] Inadequate internet access in vulnerable populations deepens a structural divide between low-income families and the non-poor. [5] Although online shopping may involve delivery fees or missing out on in-person deals, the benefits of reducing one’s exposure in high risk environments generally outweigh those negatives. The ability to shop online is a matter of equity during the pandemic because being able to reduce exposure to high risk environments reduces one’s chances of becoming ill. Online shopping requires adequate internet access.

The digital divide negatively impacts public health during the COVID-19 crisis.[6] Single parent households with inadequate internet access are disproportionately impacted during the crisis because their family members are more frequently exposed to public interactions when grocery shopping at brick and mortar locations.[7] Policymakers adjusted the California’s food assistance program, CalFresh, so recipients may also buy groceries online through Walmart and Amazon Fresh.

However, as the Public Policy Institute of California remarks, “among low-income households without broadband, 53% cited lack of interest and 25% cited affordability as key barriers.”[8] The digital divide is real, deep, and drawn upon both economic and cultural lines. Frankly, the practicality of Stay-At-Home orders is diminished when significant segments of the population are ill-equipped to adapt to the increased costs associated with relying on internet access.

Accordingly, California’s policymakers should enact policy to secure telecommunication access for all during future disasters. Emergency municipal telecommunication networks could provide localities backup municipal Wi-Fi networks that residents can access during disasters. Californians should also focus on developing publicly operated low-cost network alternatives in areas lacking affordable internet service.

Emergency Municipal Telecommunication Networks

In theory, emergency municipal telecommunication networks would ensure internet access to all Californians during times of crisis. Specifically, emergency municipal WI-FI stations. Internet access is essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents rely on internet access to utilize state benefit programs, unemployment resources, IRS services, telehealth services, and other various life necessities. However, internet cafes, community centers, churches, schools, workplaces, malls, and other entities that provide publicly accessible telecommunication services are largely not available during California’s Stay-At-Home orders.[9] If municipalities across California established emergency public WI-FI stations in strategic areas, the next time a pandemic or other disaster occurs residents could universally access the internet, as needed at municipal stations (assuming all had the appropriate technology and ability to get within range of the municipal station).  

An emergency municipal WI-FI network would entail establishing public WI-FI stations in communities that could simply switch on, as needed, for adversely impacted residents to access. In fact, an informal emergency telecommunication network already exists for California State University students. Although campus facilities and classes are closed due to the Stay-At-Home orders, many State Universities still make campus WI-FI services available to students—accessible from the car parking lot and in other open spaces on campus—because significant portions of students cannot reliably access the internet away from campus.[10]

Emergency municipal WI-FI networks are a practical fortification of California’s infrastructure for three reasons. First, the technology to expand wireless network radiuses already exists. Second, many existing public facilities require basic upgrades to expand wireless network radiuses. Lastly, the need for telecommunication access is dire in times of crisis.[11]

Introducing Network Alternatives to Adversely Impacted Areas

Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Cellular Carriers (CCs) have taken steps to increase telecommunication access with the Keep Americans Connected Pledge[12] during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, California’s infrastructure would greatly benefit from establishing low-cost network alternatives to traditional ISPs and CCs in areas lacking affordable internet service during times of crisis.

Michael Watza, contributor to the Michigan Bar Journal, contends: “Municipal broadband systems, as recently expressly authorized by the Federal Communications Commission, serve at least two functions to the benefit of all U.S. citizens: to provide much needed high-speed/low-cost internet access and to spur traditional broadband providers to do so also.”[13] In theory, introducing municipal telecommunication service into markets with affordability issues would spur ISPs and CCs to offer comparable services at competitive prices.[14] The ultimate goal is universal internet access. Municipal telecommunication networks would provide the 26% of California households without broadband subscriptions, with the reliable, affordable internet access they need.

The Digital Divide Relief Plan, proposed by State Senator Hueso, attempts to increase telecommunication access during future disasters.[15] The legislation 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 telecommunication.”[16] The bill requires ISPs and CCs to make affordable telecommunication service available to adversely impacted individuals during times of crisis.[17]

Conclusion

In sum, Californians should promote developing: (a) emergency telecommunication networks (municipal WI-FI stations), and (b) affordable telecommunication network alternatives in areas lacking affordable internet service.


[1] Justin Goss, Courtney Lee, Just the Facts: California’s Digital Divide, Nui Gao (Fellow Researcher), Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-digital-divide/, March 2019,  Date Accessed 07/08/2020.

[2] Id. (2019).

[3] Id. (2019).

[4] Fran Kritz, How Grocery Shopping Online Could Help Close Equity Gaps, California Health Report, https://www.calhealthreport.org/2020/06/08/how-grocery-shopping-online-could-help-close-equity-gaps/, Jun. 8, 2020. Date Accessed 07/08/2020.

[5] Id. (2020).

[6] Id. (2020).

[7] Id. (2020).

[8] Justin Goss (2019). See fn.1 

[9] Nicole Hayden, California Gov. Newsom Orders Statewide Closures, Including Indoor Restaurant Operations, USA Today, Desert Sun, Palm Springs, Published 07/13/2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/07/13/california-gov-gavin-newsom-orders-businesses-close-amid-covid-19/5430571002/Date Accessed 07/16/2020.

[10]Internet Access Alternatives, California State University San Bernardino website, https://www.csusb.edu/its/support/covid-19-internet-access. Date Accessed 07/16/2020.

[11] Michael J. Watza, The Internet and Municipal Broadband Network Systems, 94-SEP Mich. B.J. 32, Michigan Bar Journal, Sept. 2015.

[12] FCC, Keep Americans Connected Pledge, FCC Initiative, https://www.fcc.gov/keep-americans-connected, Date Accessed 07/16/2020.

[13] Michael J. Watza, The Internet and Municipal Broadband Network Systems, 94-SEP Mich. B.J. 32, Michigan Bar Journal, Sept. 2015. (Fast Fact).

[14] Id. (2015).

[15] California Senate Bill 1058, The Digital Divide Relief Plan, Fact Sheet. Sarah Smith, Senate Consultant.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

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