San Francisco’s Digital Divide

By: Phil Ting

The digital divide, or the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital technology and those without, is becoming an increasingly critical problem in San Francisco. As more and more information becomes electronic – health records are just the latest example – the inability to get online can leave whole groups at a dangerous disadvantage.A (cautionary) tale of two cities

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San Francisco, the birthplace of the web 2.0 revolution, is currently at risk of creating two classes of citizens – those who have access to the web’s job markets, educational opportunities, health care resources and government services, and those who don’t. Think of it as the 21st century’s have and have-nots.

Familiar Fault Lines

And sadly, San Francisco’s digital divide falls along the same uncomfortable racial and socio-economic fault lines that characterize so many of our social problems. Caucasians are twice as likely to have home Internet access than African Americans are. Bayview Hunters Point, Crocker Amazon, Chinatown, Visitacion Valley and the Tenderloin have significantly lower rates of home technology use than the rest of the city. Sixty-six percent of Latinos report having a home computer, as opposed to 88 percent of Caucasians.

So what kind of responsibility does our city government have to ensure that everyone has equal access? What should we be doing to make sure that all San Franciscans – not just those with enough cash for a Mac and a data package – can do their homework, look for work or compare housing options?

One City

Over the past few years, our civic leaders have taken steps to address the problem. We’ve made a concerted effort to blanket San Francisco with WiFi. But when one in five San Franciscans is unable to get online and is effectively disenfranchised, we clearly aren’t doing enough.

It’s no secret that I believe Internet access is a civil right. San Francisco should be one city, without swaths of citizens left behind as we transition to a digital economy. As mayor, I will make online access equality a priority, because it shouldn’t matter what neighborhood you live in or where you come from. Information is power – the power to improve your economic situation, participate in public debate and communicate with your government. And every San Franciscan deserves that right.

That’s why we have made Universal Access to the Internet such a key part of Reset San Francisco and my campaign for mayor.

This, of course, is about more than civil rights. If we create Universal Access we can finally make the leap to a true Gov 2.0 architecture that would make government services dramatically faster, more effective and less costly. That means more problems solved for the same amount of money.

The Civic Return on Investment of Gov 2.0 would be dramatic – paying for the cost of guaranteeing Universal Access many times over.

But that’s a benefit – and not just a reason. As someone who has worked in the civil rights field, I strongly believe that closing the digital divide is going to be one of the next, and most important, civil rights challenges of the coming decade.

The fact that we can do better as a city – by doing the right thing as a community – only makes this effort more important.

Help us do the right thing – and do better as a city. Please sign the Universal Access petition today.


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shawnluther's picture

Wi-Fi Access and Wireless Coverage with Cellular Carriers...

     I should probably preface this by saying that I am an Assistant Manager for a T-Mobile store here in the city. Before that, however, I was a Sprint customer for a number of years, and the issue I am addressing here still stands for ALL carriers. 
     I have already responded to a few Reset surveys about things that could improve in San Francisco, and my commitment has always been better cellular coverage (more towers) for internet access. I used to live in Dallas, and my understanding is that it takes about two weeks from the time a wireless carrier applies with the city to put up a new tower to the time the tower is built. That same process in technologically-adept San Francisco usually takes between two and three years.
     Regarding the Digital Divide, Phill Ting clearly expresses his commitment to providing Universal Wi-Fi access. Despite acknowledging the need for such services to residents, however, there has been no drive within the Planning Commission (which is responsible for approving new cell towers) to improve this situation. The building I live in has had poor coverage with ANY carrier since I moved here in 2005. I   know many people speak out at City Hall to oppose towers due to health concerns (despite many new studies showing no proof of adverse health effects), and I wonder how they will repond to universal wi-fi. There is a new ordinance beginning October 25 requiring San Francisco's wireless carriers to post warnings about RF signals, so how will the city respond when a similar signal is broadcast to ALL people? After all, people can't easily OPT OUT of having a wi-fi signal being sent into every building in San Francisco.   
     Meanwhile, it is my experience that most of the lower-income people Phil is looking to serve have only cell phones as their main source of internet access, mostly for financial reasons. (Why pay for two versions of the same service?)
     There are many wireless customers, again with all carriers, who have poor indoor coverage, so they don't HAVE access to many services in their homes. I'm not sure if universal wi-fi would solve this problem if indoor coverage might also be an issue. Similarly, I have only my cell phone (no landline) for calling, and I HAVE to have high-speed internet service through Comcast to use T-Mobile's wi-fi calling in my home. Without this workaround, I would have dropped and missed calls. Worse yet, I wouldn't be able to dial 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency because I'd have no connection. While a landline would seem the obvious solution, it doesn't make sense to pay two phone bills, and I find that many people are opting out of landline service altogether unless required by their building for front door/gate access.
     It seems that universal wi-fi would face some of the coverage issues as wireless services, but I think this is sort of re-inventing the wheel. While I fully support free wi-fi for all people in San Francisco, it leaves me disappointed and discouraged that San Francisco is so behind in making cellular wireless services available to everyone, most especially paying customers who still have to pay the same taxes and fees, mostly notably San Francisc 9-1-1 fees, whether they can use this service in their homes or not. Any argument people have now about competition between the carriers (especially with the possible acquisition of T-Mobile by AT&T) is irrelevant when people are required to choose a carrier based on coverage rather than simply the best price or best customer service. I have customers come to see me all the time looking to leave Verizon or AT&T, but can't because their carrier is the ONLY one who gives them coverage at home. 
     I will support any and all options that give people access to the wealth of knowledge that is the internet, and though I sincerely hope to see all of this change soon, I know we've heard the words "hope" and "change" before. 
     Thank you, Phil Ting, for creating Reset San Francisco and for taking a stand for the people of San Francisco. 

Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137