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

The San Diego Association of Governments’ Board of Directors adopted a resolution Friday to support increased broadband access throughout the region to help bridge the digital divide.

The divide — the gap that exists between those with and without access to information and communications technology such as broadband, computers, and smart phones — has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting people’s ability to work from home or participate in virtual classroom settings.

“Reliable broadband access has become critical for every household in the San Diego region during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said SANDAG Chair and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear. “Closing the digital divide is a must. It will contribute to the improvement of sustainability and mobility for years to come by helping people more access work, school, and human connectivity remotely.”

During the board’s meeting Friday, Antoinette Meier, SANDAG’s director of mobility and innovation, presented details about the digital divide in the San Diego region, highlighting disparities in low-income and rural households.

According to her data, 23% of households earning less than $50,000 do not have a broadband subscription while only 42% of people who live in unincorporated parts of San Diego County have fixed broadband, compared with 97% of people in urban areas. Between 20% and 40% of students in many local districts are under-connected or lack home Internet access.

“SANDAG has a responsibility to listen to the communities we serve, learn from experience and lead our region toward an inclusive and equitable future,” said SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata.

The resolution adopted by the board is intended to better position the region to take advantage of potential funding opportunities and develop partnerships to help address this issue.

SANDAG is conducting research and collecting data to help inform the development of a Regional Digital Equity Strategy and Action Plan, anticipated to be completed later this year. The price tag for the project is unclear at this time.

The plan will include technical input from a newly formed digital divide taskforce, consisting of representatives from a variety of local organizations that are actively working for this cause.

Several taskforce members joined the board meeting to stress the importance of this issue, and to support the adoption of a resolution.

“The growth of the digital divide has accelerated and been exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Kirby Brady, chief innovation officer for San Diego and a member of the taskforce. “Reliable access to broadband is a fundamental underpinning of this successful economy. Without it, our most vulnerable populations are at risk of becoming part of a permanent digital underclass, effectively cut off from the economic and educational opportunities.”

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