National University System Institute for Policy Research

(858) 642-8498 Get Started

Positioning Latinos into the Fast Lane for Universal Broadband

As printed in the San Diego Daily Transcript; December 18, 2008

Vince Vasquez, Senior Policy Analyst

Thursday, December 18, 2008

San Diego's cable and telephone companies serve thousands of households with quality broadband Internet services, but a new survey finds that more than half of Latino families are absent from the Information Super Highway. Local leaders can begin the process of bridging our digital divide and achieve "universal broadband" by heeding the public policy lessons of a key Southern state.

A poll commissioned this fall by the San Diego Institute for Policy Research revealed that only 42% of Latino residents of the City of San Diego have access to a computer with Internet service, a dismal figure compared to that of Caucasians (83%) and significantly less than overall citywide access (70%). Hispanics infrequently surf online, as only 5% of these respondents indicated they spend more than 10 hours each week on the World Wide Web, compared to 39% of Caucasians, 28% of African-Americans, and 37% of Asians.

These numbers should serve as a call to action to change the status quo, and an opportunity to ask what the underlying causes are behind San Diego's digital disparity. Language clearly plays some role. According to a 2007 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, "Spanish-dominant Latinos are less likely to use the Internet at all income and education levels." Not surprisingly, there is a modicum of Spanish-language content on the World Wide Web: it is estimated that 56% of all web pages on the Internet are in English, and only 3% in Spanish. The data may also reflect a lack of broadband service in certain city neighborhoods, or where access may be prohibitively expensive for some households. Certainly this would not be due to a lack of commitment from incumbent service providers, as AT&T, Cox and Time Warner Cable have all spent millions of dollars in high-speed communications infrastructure in San Diego, and have demonstrated a durable commitment to assisting Hispanic community organizations in our region. The reality however is that service gaps do exist, but they can be identified and closed if local leaders adopt a proven public-private partnership crafted in the state of Kentucky.

With only a 60% broadband access rate, and ranking an abysmal 43rd among states for citizen Internet use, Kentucky was an unlikely candidate to lead the way through the Internet frontier. But state leaders had a strong interest for doing so, as expanding high-tech investment increases career, educational and financial opportunities for working families. In 2004, then-Governor Ernie Fletcher announced an ambitious plan to reach every resident with an outlet to the World Wide Web. Known as the "Prescription for Innovation" (PFI), Fletcher's idea was two-fold: 1) compile a statewide "broadband inventory map" of current high-speed Internet infrastructure, and 2) work with citizens to facilitate bottom-up grassroots strategies to close identified broadband service gaps and expand adoption.

PFI is a public-private partnership, exchanging market-relevant information between consumers and businesses. With satellite mapping technology, and data from the U.S. Census and broadband service providers, PFI provided the public with high-quality maps that display a block-by-block image of Internet haves- and have-nots. With this valuable information in hand, residents across the state created plans to encourage greater broadband business interest in their communities, spurring new private investment. This straightforward, hands-off approach to universal broadband has proven to be popular with both Internet service companies and residents. Today, 95% of Kentuckians have broadband access, with overall broadband subscriptions increasing 100% since 2004. This is a resounding victory in the race to bridge the digital divide, and testament to the power of public-private partnerships.

PFI was successful because it was a cooperative agreement that removed key government obstacles that separate businesses from consumers. While elected officials set the vision and public goals for universal broadband, broadband service providers were freed to increase subscriptions in a way that complimented their overall business strategy - new service standards and business practices were not mandated. Fletcher's plan didn't dictate new taxes, customer rates, delivery technologies or service packages to participating companies; he reduced the regulatory burden and protected their flexibility to innovate, invest, and serve communities in an open market. By creating a win-win situation, Kentucky officials were able to achieve their public goal.

Elected leaders in San Diego County should weigh the merits of pursuing universal broadband in a similar fashion. Building on the lessons learned in Kentucky, a viable approach would be to facilitate the creation of a privately financed non-profit organization that could lead a countywide mapping effort, and coordinate with cities and unincorporated communities to create neighborhood business plans that would encourage existing broadband companies to enter into new neighborhood markets. To spur cooperation and investment, a limited exemption from costly rights of way fees, red tape, and other regulations should be approved at the local level. In addition to Latino neighborhoods, focus should be placed on households with incomes under $40,000, which reported only 40% access, and those with a high school education or less, which reported 38% access.

Cities can also play a role. More than 30% of the residents of Chula Vista, Escondido, Imperial Beach, National City, and Vista speak Spanish at home. These municipalities, along with the City and County of San Diego should find ways to put more of the content of their web sites in Spanish so as to provide these residents access to municipal information and services.

Though our local governments are straining under terrible fiscal conditions, increasing broadband penetration and internet access needs to remain a priority. Without spending a tremendous amount of resources, San Diego County can still provide the civic leadership and marketplace conditions to achieve universal broadband for every resident. Having the desire to improve the quality of life for Latinos and every resident is the foundation for a more prosperous future for our region.