Cellular antennas on a tower. Photo by Leon Brooks via Wikimedia Commons

By Earl Lum and Orlando Gonzales

The City of San Diego is navigating many obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the most pressing is the inadequacy of its broadband Internet infrastructure. Full participation in the modern world requires a fast and reliable broadband connection, and more and more of everyday activities and livelihoods are moving online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet a backroom deal between Verizon and Mayor Kevin Faulconer signed in 2019 has left most San Diegans behind one year later.

The digital divide — the gulf between those who can readily access computers and the Internet and those who cannot — is among those disparities, even if it hasn’t received the same public recognition as others, and it is an especially acute problem in San Diego.

As of 2018, there were more than 77,000 households in San Diego without high-speed Internet at home and another 36,000 without any Internet at home, including a cell phone data plan. The problem disproportionately impacts low-income households and communities of color. Compared to white families, Black and Latinx families are about twice as likely to have no computer or smart devices and no internet subscription.

In San Diego, there are approximately 12,000 households with school-age kids that either lack an Internet subscription or an suitable device. Yet the San Diego Unified School District, the second-largest in California, has decided to continue requiring graded work after transitioning to fully online classes. The problem is so bad in California that the Department of Education has convened the Closing the Digital Divide Task Force to evaluate disparities across the state, facilitate donations, and identify possible solutions.

While the digital divide is causing widespread problems in San Diego, Verizon’s 5G deal with the city, and its small cell strategy, are unlikely to help bridge the gap, with serious potential to make the divide even worse for the foreseeable future.

Verizon’s 5G strategy relies on a high band, millimeter wave spectrum, known as mmWave, which has proven to be unstable and unable to penetrate buildings. It also depends on aggressive deployment of small cells, often requiring a small cell every couple of city blocks because the signal range is limited to 300 to 800 feet.

Despite its recent launch of 5G in San Diego on May 28, Verizon’s 5G mmWave network in San Diego is extremely limited.

A review of San Diego’s small cell permitting data indicates that Verizon only has around 150 street and signal light poles permitted as of last month, providing small areas of coverage in just four, almost entirely commercial neighborhoods. Cities like Sacramento, and Chicago which have “launched” Verizon’s 5G, have had significant coverage issues and complaints from customers.

One of us has studied Verizon’s network deployment in several cities and found sparse coverage across the majority of the 30 cities launched in 2019. For the city of San Diego launch in 2020, four neighborhoods out of 29 were designated for the launch: Linda Vista, Mission Valley, Bankers Hill, and Kensington. Zooming in on the Verizon Wireless coverage map for the Linda Vista neighborhood shows 5G signal coverage along Linda Vista Road, the main street where commercial businesses and retail stores are located, including Fire Rescue Station 23, the Linda Vista Library, and a U.S. Postal Service facility. There is minimal coverage for residential apartments and homes within the neighborhood based upon the five small cell sites we were able to find.

To ensure full 5G coverage, Verizon would need to deploy a total of 3,000 to 5,000 5G small cell sites across the city.

On top of network issues, the mayor’s sweetheart deal with Verizon only exacerbates the digital divide and pressure on the city’s budget.

For the network’s capacity to increase, the city needs additional staff to approve permits for small cell deployment. Initially, the agreement included financial support from Verizon to help the city hire more staff, but that support was cut in later iterations of the deal. With the city now facing a severe budget deficit from COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine there will be a focus on hiring for a project that was not prioritized before the pandemic hit. With all the challenges that come along with deployment, not having adequate staff will slow down the process.

The deal also lacks requirements to increase the network’s capacity in under-served communities. When Verizon was asked whether they would consider installing broadband infrastructure in under-served areas in San Diego, the company told the city that they would let market demand determine where they built the network.

Other cities have addressed the digital divide through similar agreements — the City of San Jose signed a deal with Verizon and other carriers to streamline small cell deployment that included the requirement that the companies contribute to a Digital Inclusion Fund.

The mayor should call on Verizon to revise the deal so the city can hire more staff, and demand the company shift its priorities to provide for underserved communities if they want access to public infrastructure and taxpayer services. Mayor Faulconer’s acquiescence to a major corporation will only delay and deny digital equity for all San Diegans.

Earl Lum, founder and president of EJL Wireless Research in northern California and Orlando Gonzales, secretary-treasurer of Communications Workers of America, Local 9509 in San Diego.

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