Knowing something is true, and having the data to prove that knowledge, are two different things. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced school-age children to virtual school, we knew logically that not all children had access to the internet bandwidth necessary to support a day of Zoom calls. Anecdotally, we saw the issue personified in viral images like one of two children doing their homework outside a Taco Bell in Salinas.
But for Assemblymember Robert Rivas, who represents District 30, a general understanding of the digital divide wasn’t enough. So Rivas tapped researchers at San Jose State University, his alma mater, to collect data on broadband availability and access in District 30.
Ahoura Zandiatashbar, an assistant professor of urban planning, led a team the SJSU Spatial Analytics and Visualization (SAVi) Center to create a series of maps showing the gap between where internet is available and where users are located.
“What we learned from that data set…[is] we see more limitation as we get further [from the Bay Area],” Zandiatashbar says.
Zandiatashbar’s team correlated fixed broadband data from the Federal Communications Commission with American Community Survey data showing school-age children, Latino and African-American populations and residents with below-poverty earnings.
The resulting “Digital Divide Assessment” map highlights areas where there is both a high number of school-age children or a high number of minority residents and limited broadband services. The darker red areas, Zandiatashbar says, are the ones that need the most attention and investment.
Zandiatashbar says he was surprised by the clear north/south divide seen in District 30. The northern part of the district is doing “pretty well” in terms of access, but that’s less and less true as you move south through Monterey County. He also notes that the same geographical difference can be seen within cities—in Salinas, for example, the north is well-served (blue in color on the map) compared to the underserved (red) patches in the south.
“It basically exacerbates the gap and the divide between the people that are living in this area—we can’t put all of the infrastructure resources for people in the Bay Area,” Zandiatashbar says.
The report published on this research also includes a qualitative case study, conducted by researchers at SJSU’s Lurie College of Education in partnership with students at Watsonville High School. Through 350 interviews with community members, these 175 students unearthed another element of the digital divide conversation: Infrastructure alone doesn’t guarantee access.
Zandiatashbar hopes decision-makers will use his maps to identify and prioritize places where investments should be made for maximum impact—whether that means bringing more internet service providers into the area, investing in publicly available resources like a library with free Wi-Fi, or something else.
That’s already happening with Assembly Bill 14, introduced to the legislature in December by assemblymembers Cecilia Aguilar-Curry, D-Davis, Rivas and others. The bill would allow local educational institutions to report on the device and internet connectivity needs of their students.
And that’s just one of the current state-level initiative—there’s also the California Broadband for All Bond Act, which was introduced by members Al Muratsuchi, Eduardo Garcia and Miguel Santiago, that aims to ensure that over 98 percent of the state’s households have broadband internet access by providing up to $10 billion in infrastructure funding via a general obligation bond measure; SB 28, introduced by State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, which would encourage public-private partnerships where broadband network developers could gain access to and use state-owned properties for development of broadband infrastructure; and more.
Theoretically, the SJSU maps provide helpful data for all of these initiatives, as well as more local efforts within District 30. “When we know exactly where we are supposed to focus on, we can come up with the short-term and long-term vision to address the gap in this area,” Zandiatashbar says.