Digital Divide: 100,000 lack Internet access in SF, report says

For years San Francisco has discussed closing the digital divide, but the chasm persists and has become more glaring amid the current tech boom.

A new report says about 100,000 San Franciscans lack Internet access at their homes and some 50,000 are using sluggish dial-up connections. Similar numbers have persisted for years.

The “Digital Divide in San Francisco” report by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose, comes before the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee on Thursday. It comes as the board is reviewing The City’s 5-year technology plan, as part of Mayor Ed Lee’s budget submission for the upcoming fiscal year, which doesn’t include any plans for a public broadband network.

Supervisor Eric Mar, who requested the report, was disappointed by the tech plan and wants to revive the effort to create a municipal fiber broadband network serving residents’ homes.

Analysis done in 2007 at the request of then Supervisor Tom Ammiano found The City could connect every home and every business to a fiber network for $560 million in 15 years. It was the last time such a project was analyzed by The City.

“I would like to see [municipal broadband] in 10 years but I know that it takes the mayor and his top technology folks to champion it,” Mar said. He added, “It doesn’t happen overnight. But if you don’t plan for it, it doesn’t happen. The city can have a much broader vision of digital inclusion like we did years ago.”

While The City “has a number of services and initiatives in place to address the digital divide,” the report said “the City does not have a comprehensive plan to bridge the digital divide.”

Some of those efforts include free Wi-Fi in public parks. But to close the digital divide means people have access to high-speed Internet in their homes.

Other cities do more, the report said, such as “provide assistance to residents to obtain low cost broadband and discounted and refurbished computer hardware.”

Around 150 smaller U.S. municipalities, including Chattanooga, Tenn. and Cedar Falls, Iowa, have constructed municipal high-speed fiber-optic networks.

“Though a municipal broadband network would be a costly and ambitious undertaking, it would create a City asset with high market value that could thus provide a revenue stream to cover initial investments and ongoing costs,” the report said.

Those who lack access to the Internet tend to have lower income, are typically older, less educated and people of color. Supervisorial Districts 3, 6, and 11 have the lowest rates of Internet access while Supervisorial Districts 4 and 8 have the highest rates, the report said.

Barriers to the Internet include availability of service and cost. The report said that while there are at least 17 different Internet providers offering service, not all providers are available in all areas. There are typically two or three providers per area.

Rates can be costly even for slower speeds, ranging from $359.40 and $539.40 per year. For higher speeds the costs range from $419.40 to $1,176 per year.

The City’s Director of the Department of Technology Miguel Gamino said officials are working on developing a more comprehensive digital divide plan. He indicated no desire to create a public broadband network, favoring instead a reliance on public-private partnerships.

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