Growing up, Jesus Lopez remembers the lengths he would go to stay connected to the world through the internet.
He would regularly carry his bulky egg-shaped IMAC, along with a keyboard and mouse, to a library or local internet hub to get connected.
“I would have to lug that thing over to a coffee shop and connect to WiFi that way,” Lopez says.
A son of migrant farm workers, Lopez was born and raised at the San Andreas migrant labor camp between La Selva Beach and Watsonville. It was the early 2000s and broadband internet access was not widespread, especially not in poorer, far-flung communities like San Andreas.
“The only [access] we could get at the time, was dial up at the house and that was expensive and I really had to work toward convincing my parents,” Lopez says.
Almost 20 years later, Lopez, who is now the sales and marketing manager for local ISP Cruzio, is helping families get access to broadband internet through Equal Access Santa Cruz (EASC).
His mission to make the internet accessible to families across income levels was accelerated by the onset of the pandemic in 2020, when the shift to remote learning laid bare the disparity in internet access for low-income families.
“When the pandemic hit, a lot of the communities that we were hooking up all felt and looked pretty much exactly like where I grew up,” Lopez says.
A 2021 Census Bureau report found that one in five households with K-12 students in the state did not have reliable internet. As schools switched to distance learning, access to high-speed, reliable internet was necessary to attend virtual classes.
Now, thanks to initiatives like EASC, residents across Santa Cruz County are getting connected at a high rate and for low cost.
In 2020, as students and teachers rapidly adjusted to remote learning, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) and Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) reached out to Cruzio to ensure students weren’t left behind due disparities with internet access.
In response, Cruzio partnered with the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County to form EASC. Its flagship project was to provide internet access to over 100 families at the Buena Vista Migrant Center outside Watsonville.
Since the completion of the Buena Vista project in 2021, EASC has continued to expand affordable access for families, including those in rural areas.
According to Cruzio’s website, EASC has connected 1,200 students and families to new internet access, and enhanced broadband availability in 60% of the Watsonville and Pajaro area, among other projects.
James Hackett, Cruzio’s director of business operations, says that, initially, the task was daunting as they became aware of the large number of families that did not have reliable and affordable internet access in the area. He remembers when Jason Borgen, chief technology officer for the County Office of Education, first showed him the list of underserved families.
“He just fires up a spreadsheet with like three or four hundred addresses. It was like ‘Whoa, okay, we need help. This is big. This is bigger than we expected,’” Hackett says.
The list was made up of families who were already enrolled in low-income benefits programs, so the qualification process for low cost broadband access was easy, according to Hackett. A broadband plan that normally costs $75 could be offered for as low as $15 a month.
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education saw a marked increase in access for K-12 students within the first year of EASC’s program.
“[Thanks to the partnership with EASC] We were able to reduce the number of students without broadband access from 18% to 3% from Spring 2020 to Spring 2021,” says Nick Ibarra, director of communications and engagement for the COE.
Ibarra says the efforts included distributing thousands of cellular hotspots and chromebooks, subsidized rates for broadband, and installing rooftop antennas on schools and other locations to boost coverage in rural areas.
As local efforts continue, the issue has prompted state and federal legislation seeking to address the challenges.
In the two years since EASC took action to expand broadband internet access locally, state and federal initiatives have also attempted to address the “digital divide.”
In July 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 156, the Broadband Trailer Bill, which allocated $6 billion to expand broadband access and infrastructure in the state. The bill’s goal was building the “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, a state-owned open-access network.
This network resembles a road system in which smaller, local streets connect to various highways. In this example, the middle mile infrastructure are the highways, or the midpoint to which the localities trying to connect to broadband must build their own “roads” to reach. The closer communities are to that middle mile highway, the less they need to spend on creating the infrastructure to reach it.
When SB 156 was passed, it was lauded as a crucial step towards connecting underserved communities. However, in August 2023 the California Department of Technology changed its map outlining which communities get middle mile infrastructure without a public process, according to a report by Electronic Frontier Foundation. This slashed the proposed 10,000 miles of fiber optic broadband cable to 8,300 miles.
“These uninformed cuts to critical infrastructure will drastically raise the cost of building high-speed, high-capacity internet networks in unserved and underserved neighborhoods. It also jeopardizes the funds these communities need to build these networks. These changes run counter to the purpose of S.B. 156 and all efforts to close the digital divide.” the report stated.
The state said the cuts were due to inflation and the high construction costs. In September, Newsom reversed course and announced that he would “divert funds from the January 2024 budget to universalize broadband services throughout California,” according to Liana Bailey-Crimmins, director of the California Department of Technology.
In June 2023, the Biden administration unveiled its own national initiative to expand broadband access. The Broadband Equity and Deployment bill (BEAD) is a $42 billion grant program aimed at providing reliable and affordable broadband internet access to all residents and small businesses in the country by 2030. California is among 19 states to which a $1 billion allocation would be granted.
While state and federal initiatives move at a glacial pace, localized efforts continue to address the equitable access gap.
In October of this year, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) published a white paper titled “The State of Broadband in the Monterey Bay Region.”
MBEP was established to advocate for reliable and affordable internet service, according to its website. It has partnered with organizations such as The Central Coast Broadband Consortium and the Salinas Valley Broadband Authority to develop its Digital Equity Initiative.
The white paper makes recommendations on how to span the digital divide by raising awareness among area residents about the benefits of broadband in all aspects of their lives. These include improved education and healthcare available digitally.
According to the paper’s findings, 42% of households in Santa Cruz County are eligible for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, but only 25% of those eligible households are taking advantage of the program.
Access to reliable broadband infrastructure is the other part of the equation, and MBEP has found that the geographic challenges of the region make access to broadband more difficult for some residents.
“The rural nature of numerous communities within the tri-county area has contributed to the limited or lack of the infrastructure needed for fiber technology, leaving many residential and commercial community members needing more reliable broadband service,” the paper says.
According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data cited by the paper, only about 79% of residential areas in the county have broadband coverage from either fiber optic or fixed wireless transmission.
MBEP calls for a “hybrid model” solution to address the disparities in access for Santa Cruz County, as well as San Benito and Monterey County. This would require efforts to determine which method of broadband delivery is best suited for a particular area.
Equal Access Santa Cruz has been working with MBEP for years and is on board with the conclusions their research came to.
“We strongly agree with most elements of that white paper because a lot of it comes from [collaborating] with them on coming up with those ideas,” Hackett says.
“But the idea of using a hybrid of technologies, fiber optics where it makes sense; fixed wireless where it makes sense. That’s basically the foundation of everything that we are proposing for the solution,” says Hackett.
For now, EASC continues to hook people up.
Earlier this year, EASC linked up with Housing Matters to provide broadband service to its The Casa Azul project. Casa Azul consists of two one-bedroom apartments and five studio units for people with one or more disabilities and have been homeless for a year or more.
Hackett says that the partnership with Housing Matters served as a test run for its larger upcoming project, Harvey West Studios. That project will consist of 120 units of permanent housing for chronically homeless individuals.
Now in its third year running, the founding of EASC was a true silver lining during the uncertainty of the pandemic in 2020. Despite the trying circumstances that brought this equity initiative about, Hackett is glad that people are finally getting what he and his team have been advocating for all along. “Okay, finally, people are understanding that, yeah, this is a major problem. But, our primary goal is to get affordable high speed broadband there to everybody in the region,” Hackett says.