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Good afternoon. 

Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, grateful, as always, to be connected to the internet from the comfort of my home.

In August, a photo shared on Instagram went viral. It shows two girls sitting on the ground outside a Taco Bell in Salinas, there to use the fast-food restaurant’s Wi-Fi in order to complete their online school work. The girls did not, like so many others, have internet access at home.

The photo almost immediately became a flashpoint, inspiring national news stories and political speeches and, eventually, the introduction of new broadband legislation. But the photo did not create the “digital divide” it describes nor did it, really, tell us anything we didn’t already know.

At first glance, statistics about internet access in California look good. In 2017, 97 percent of households had access to the internet. But dig down into the specifics and familiar equity issues arise—low-income, rural or Latino households, for example, have far less access. In 2017 nearly 1 million school-aged children in California had no internet access at home. There are also disparities around the speed and reliability of internet service, especially in rural areas.

With Covid-19, and school going entirely virtual, these issues become all the more salient. When schools shut down in the spring, the Monterey County Office of Education found that over 6,000 students from Monterey County schools and districts did not have access to a device in the home and 11,279 students did not have connectivity to the internet in the home.

So what are we doing to combat the digital divide? Locally there have been various efforts—the city of Gonzales, for example, distributed 2,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to residents then loaned an additional 300 to the Monterey County Health Department, and made them available for checkout via Monterey County Free Libraries. The Office of Education formed a “Digital Equity Task Force.” Monterey-Salinas Transit buses equipped with Wi-Fi were sent out to provide a place for kids to connect. In East Salinas, organizers built a community center with Wi-Fi to help meet the needs of the low-income families who live in the Acosta Plaza apartments.

All these efforts are good ones, helping to meet people’s immediate and very real needs. But they all share a common weakness—they amount to a patchwork of solutions, filling the gap that, ultimately, needs infrastructure and access reform. Reform will require investment, from lawmakers and utility companies and taxpayers. As we embark on a new calendar year and a new legislative cycle, we have an opportunity to make that investment. Those girls in the photo, and many others like them, are watching.

-Tajha Chappellet-Lanier, Monterey County NOW editor, tajha@mcweekly.com 

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