The Digital Divide in the San Diego Region


The internet is a fundamental part of life. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented tremendous challenges, especially people without internet access.
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.
Young woman at home during pandemic isolation learning, listening to lecture online

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.
California’s New Broadband Standard 100/20 Mbps download and upload speeds
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.
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.
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.
Data on broadband access comes from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

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.
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)
Summary of Internet Service Plans in San Diego County - Download speeds 501-1000 mbps monthly cost is $60-$109.99. Download speeds 101-500 mbps monthly cost is $45-$69.99. Download speeds 25-100 mbps monthly cost is $14.99-$350. Download speeds 1-24 mbps monthly cost is $19.99-$250.
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 (left image) 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, seniors, and minority populations, as illustrated in the maps below.

These communities were also impacted most by the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to face high unemployment rates.

Broadband Infrastructure

These gaps in broadband service throughout the region are also where the greatest gaps in infrastructure exist.
Although more granular data on broadband infrastructure is unavailable, SANDAG, with the help of Caltrans and data from the CPUC, was able to identify the census blocks where broadband providers have invested in fiber.
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 be shared to expand access and bring down costs of broadband service.
Fiber infrastructure deployment requires close coordination and partnerships among public and private agencies.

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.