Seniors and people with disabilities are still digitally divided

What are San Francisco’s options for univeral broadband Internet?

Maria Guadalupe Siordia-Ortiz, 67, was a little late to start using Zoom. She figured out how to use the video calling application in December, motivated by her desire to speak to her family in Mexico and Japan for the holidays.

But once she got the hang of Zoom, she ran into another hurdle: Her WiFi wasn’t always strong enough to make the call.

“Sometimes you’re in an important conversation with your friends and it just drops and you don’t know what happened,” she said. “You just have to come back and tell them later that, ‘You know what? I don’t have great WiFi.’”

Siordia-Ortiz is one of many seniors struggling with digital access. Technical training, the distribution of WiFi-enabled devices and more cost-accessible WiFi are necessary to get them up to speed, according to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office and countless experts. Similar issues are barriers to access for people with disabilities in The City. Without improved access, both demographics face distinct difficulties in an increasingly digital world.

According to a 2018 Digital Divide Survey, 86% of San Franciscans have internet and basic digital literacy skills. By contrast, only 60% of people over age 65 fall into this category. Only 52% of people with disabilities have high-speed internet at home, compared with 89% of San Franciscans without a disability. In total, over 100,000 San Franciscans either lack home broadband internet or basic digital skills.

Sordia-Ortiz is part of a group called Senior and Disability Action, which demonstrated inside AT&T’s flagship offices on Oct. 13 to pressure The City’s top internet service provider into offering lower cost, higher speed plans. Approximately 25 demonstrators participated, virtually halting work at the store by circling and chanting in the main shopping area for at least two hours before being escorted out by San Francisco police.

Demonstrators told The Examiner how the low-cost service AT&T offers them as recipients of Social Security benefits is too slow to stream or make video calls. That prohibited them from calling in to make public comments, making telehealth appointments and conversing with friends and family during a nearly two-year period of social distancing and lockdowns. Multiple demonstrators, including people who are immunocompromised, said they were unable to refill prescriptions during the height of the pandemic because of the high reliance on video chat health care appointments. They also said they were forced to leave their homes during periods of high COVID transmission for essential services they otherwise would have been able to access online.

Siordia-Ortiz, a member organizer for the demonstration, said, “They had revenues of $271 billion, just in 2020,” explaining why the group took the fight to AT&T’s Union Square location. “You know how much seniors and disabled people make on SSI? $764 a month.”

George Moncado protests at the AT&T store in Union Square for improved internet service for seniors and people with disabilities. <ins>(Veronica Irwin/The Examiner)</ins>

George Moncado protests at the AT&T store in Union Square for improved internet service for seniors and people with disabilities. (Veronica Irwin/The Examiner)

AT&T is The City’s most popular internet service provider, closely followed by Xfinity by Comcast. Both offer $10 a month internet plans for households that receive food assistance or social security. The plans offer internet at 25 and 50 Mbps speeds.

The City has its own program to close the digital divide, called the Digital Equity Strategic Plan. Created in 2019, the plan outlines strategic goals to reach digital equity by 2024. In addition to plans to provide more digital training and distribute WiFi-enabled devices, the plan aims to make 25 Mbps internet available for $15 a month or less for all households by the end of the five-year period. To do so, the plan states The City should “form strategic partnerships with technology companies, wireless carriers, ISPs and community-based organizations.”

Brian Roberts, a policy analyst at the Department of Technology, noted 25 Mbps is the Federal Communications Commission’s standard for high-speed broadband — something the federal government reaffirmed in March, even after some senators said the definition should be amended to 100 Mbps in the modern era. Roberts also said weak wiring in old buildings, like single-room occupancy residences, can lead to further decreased internet speeds.

Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said achieving 100% internet access across The City at 25 Mbps would be insufficient. “It’s unfortunate that City Hall would seek to embrace that as a sufficient connection, quite frankly, because that was considered slow years ago and is even slower today,” he said. “It’s like investing money and putting effort behind giving everyone dial-up internet.”

Both Falcon and Roberts say California’s new broadband infrastructure legislation, Senate Bill 4 and Assembly Bill 14, might change The City’s options. The bills, signed Oct. 8, complete the state’s broadband infrastructure program with a total of $7.5 billion assembled between federal and state funds. The program will distribute grants to local governments to create infrastructure improvements which, Falcon said, may be fairly inexpensive.

Falcon uses a program created last year in Chattanooga, Tennessee, called HCS EdConnect as an example. It offers some of the highest-speed, low-cost internet in the country: free 100 Mbps internet for 28,500 students in 18,000 households who qualify for free or reduced lunch. The program, which will support students for 10 years, costs about $2.50, per family per month. By comparison, President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Plan, being debated in Congress, envisions spending $30 a month per household for internet-access subsidies. Current federal subsidies reach up to $50 a month, per household.

San Francisco once tried to establish a public-private partnership with similar goals. In 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom announced plans to establish a network called San Francisco Municipal Wireless and put out requests for proposals in 2005. In 2006, Google and Earthlink won a bid to set up a citywide program. But the proposal was scrapped in 2007 when Earthlink notified the mayor it would pull out of the deal because the company didn’t see it as financially viable.

By contrast, Chattanooga’s program is a public-private partnership, between a school district, the fiber arm of the local municipal utility, a local nonprofit and other organizations. It does not use a partnership with for-profit internet service providers.

“Public ownership is necessary if we’re really serious about giving low-income people 21st century access,” Falcon said.

The City does provide some free access from a city-run internet service provider in a limited amount of affordable housing units through its Fiber to Housing program. Currently, it reaches 7,115 units across 53 sites with free, high-speed fiber. It’s the product of a collaboration between local ISP Monkeybrains, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, and San Francisco’s Department of Technology.

Demonstrators on Monday didn’t seem to know much about the Digital Equity Access Plan, or have much interest in a public internet plan. But 25 Mbps, they say, from private ISPs or The City, is insufficient for their needs. “People are missing medical payments, not seeing their doctors, trying to connect with their family or their friends,” said Sordia-Ortiz. “We are just trying to find the answer.”

virwin@sfexaminer.com

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