The Digital Divide in the San Diego Region

Introduction

The internet is a fundamental part of life. 
High-quality, high-speed internet service is referred to as broadband. Inequities in broadband availability and affordability impact households and businesses across the region. The growing gap between people who do and do not have reliable access to broadband and a suitable device for connecting to the internet is known as the digital divide. This divide has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and without new policies and programs to address this issue, it will continue to worsen and present tremendous challenges for people without internet access. [1]
On This Page
  • Broadband 101
  • Broadband Access
  • Broadband Adoption
  • Broadband Infrastructure
  • Mapping the Digital Divide
  • Strategies to Bridge the Digital Divide

Broadband 101

Broadband service relies on a network of communications infrastructure.
Fiber is the backbone of broadband networks. The middle mile brings the internet to network hubs at population centers. From there, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) make the last mile connection to homes and businesses through wired or wireless technologies such as 5G, fiber, satellite, cable, or DSL.
Broadband 101 diagram of middle mile versus last mile. Fiber-optic is the backbone and middle mile is the fiber distribution hubs. The last mile includes DSL, cable modem, fiber-optic cables, wireless and satellite.
Not all internet connections are considered “broadband.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines a broadband connection as one with a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps, or 25/3 Mbps. However, these speeds are inadequate for today’s environment where many people under one household may be online doing schoolwork, telework, or streaming video games or television. Recognizing this, the State of California has set a new broadband standard of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

Broadband Access

The digital divide affects urban and rural communities differently.
Today, many of our rural and tribal communities lack access to broadband service. This map shows where fixed broadband meets the FCC’s broadband standard of 25/3 Mbps. The lack of broadband service in the unincorporated parts of the County means that only 66% of rural communities have access to fixed broadband that meets the FCC’s low threshold. In comparison, 94% of people in the region’s urban areas have access to fixed broadband service. [2]
About 14% of households in census tracts containing tribal lands lack broadband access.
Most of the region is only served by one or two broadband providers, leaving rural and tribal communities with little to no choice of service and speed.

Broadband Adoption

Affordability is one of the main barriers preventing people from subscribing to an internet service plan, according to a survey by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF).
The cost for internet plans differs throughout San Diego County, but many rural and tribal communities experience disproportionally higher costs. 
The higher-cost internet services tend to be located in areas with limited choices of providers, directly impacting rural, tribal, and low-income communities. Costs in rural and tribal areas of the County can reach as high as $90 per month for slow and unreliable service.
68% of respondents indicated that internet being “too expensive” is one of the reasons why they lack a connection at home.
- Source: CETF 2021 Statewide Broadband Adoption Survey

Paying more does not always equate to better service.
Rural and tribal communities are often constrained in their choice of internet service providers and end up paying more for speeds that do not meet the minimum 25/3 broadband threshold.
The summary of internet plans in San Diego County shows how higher charges in monthly rate changes does not directly equate to higher download speeds.
Data on broadband costs comes from Broadband Now.
Lack of a computer and/or broadband subscription disproportionately impacts low-income households, older adults, and people of color, as illustrated in the maps below.
There is a high concentration of low-income households in the unincorporated, central, and southern parts of the County that lack access to broadband and/or a computer. Around 13% of households in western Chula Vista, National City, and southeastern San Diego have both low income and a lack of broadband access.
Further, the number of adults per 100 households who would use internet on a cell phone, if cheaper, is centered around Downtown San Diego and South Bay.
Communities of color make up 43% of the regional population. Of this group, 10% of residents lack a computer and/or broadband access.
Older adults (age 65 and older) make up 14% of the regional population. Of this group, 17% of residents lack a computer and/or broadband access.

Broadband Infrastructure

The gaps in broadband service throughout the region are also where the greatest gaps in infrastructure exist.
In addition to fiber that is owned and managed by private companies, government agencies like SANDAG, Caltrans, North County Transit District (NCTD), and Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) have invested in fiber to operate transportation services and systems. Currently, this fiber is exclusively used for transportation purposes, but excess capacity could present an opportunity for an innovative partnership to expand access and bring down costs for households in the region. [3]
Fiber infrastructure deployment requires close coordination and partnerships among public and private agencies.

Mapping the Digital Divide

The Digital Divide has the greatest impact on equity-focused communities (low-income households, the older adults, and people of color). These characteristics were used to identify which census tracts are most impacted by the Digital Divide.

Strategies to Bridge the Digital Divide

Broadband is a necessary public service. To achieve our vision for a connected region, these seven overarching strategies have been developed to address the range of digital inequities that exist in the region today.

Annex

Below are maps of the various factors influencing the Digital Divide.
Note: for this data, broadband refers to “households who said ‘Yes’ to one or more of the following categories: broadband (high speed) such as cable, fiber optic, or DSL, cellular data plan, satellite, or fixed wireless”.

Endnotes

[1] Data sources for this report include the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), American Community Survey (ACS), and Claritas PRIZM Premier (PRIZM Premier).
[2] For this data, broadband access includes high-speed broadband (cable, fiber optic, or DSL), cellular data plan, satellite, or fixed wireless.
[3] The presence of fiber in the map does not indicate that fiber or broadband service is widely available throughout that community but simply that fiber is present within that census block.