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The Digital Divide in San Francisco: Draft report released on February 5, 2007

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Executive Summary

The digital divide is defined as the access – or lack thereof – to technology at home (U.S. Dept of Commerce October 2003). Recent studies have shown the digital divide can be identified and measured according to seven at-risk socio-economic groups: Race, Gender, Age, Educational Attainment, Income, Disability and Employment Status (Selhofer and Hüsing 2002, European Commission 2003, Hüsing 2004, Fox/Pew Internet, 2005). The following report analyzes the first four groups, based on readily available data.

An analysis of digital divide indicators for San Francisco and comparison cities indicates there is a substantial digital divide in San Francisco, and that it is more acute in San Francisco than in comparison cities. Data from the 2003 U.S. Current Population Survey indicates that one-third of the residents in San Francisco do not have access to a computer or the Internet at home. While the total population of San Francisco ranks in the middle of comparison city rankings, all of the at-risk socio-economic groups in San Francisco are below average, lagging at or near the bottom of the comparison city rankings in terms of absolute percentage with access to technology at home. Educational attainment exhibits the largest and most consistent gap of all at-risk socio-economic groups in San Francisco and across all comparison cities, and is most acute in San Francisco for people who completed high school but did not attend college. San Francisco exhibits the largest gender gap for women, the largest age gap for seniors, and a substantial race gap for non-whites (including Hispanics).

Data obtained from the California Board of Education for the school year 2004-2005 indicates that San Francisco ranks last in computers per 100 students among California cities. San Francisco ranks 7th out of the 9 Bay Area counties, and below the state average. San Francisco ranks last in classrooms with Internet per 100 students both in the Bay Area and among California cities, and below the state average.

In 2004, San Francisco announced plans to offer universal wireless internet access to all residents in the City. This effort will help close the digital divide gap for wireless access and for Internet access, but only for those people who already own a computer with a wireless antenna. San Francisco should focus substantial additional effort towards increasing home ownership of computers, and as a substitute for those who cannot afford one, increasing computers in the classroom and other community institutions.

Interviews conducted with community leaders and community technology center staff members indicate that providing Internet access and computer hardware devices is an insufficient program design for economic development. An effective program must provide skills training and ongoing support in the use, application, repair, and upgrade of both hardware and software to provide a more certain path up the job ladder. The multi-cultural and multi-ethnic composition of San Francisco also necessitates providing and stimulating development of locally relevant content and services in multiple languages.

San Francisco’s recently published Draft Digital Inclusion Framework incorporates these recommendations into four program focus areas which require prioritization and funding:

• Access
• Hardware
• Skills Training and Support
• Content and Services

The Draft Digital Inclusion Framework leverages the existence and expertise of the local community technology centers and other non-profit groups to implement and coordinate the proposed programs. However, the Framework, in its Draft format, does not specify prioritization or funding sources for the proposed programs. Most importantly, the framework does not establish explicit linkages to workforce development programs established by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development, the Private Industry Council, the Workforce Investment Board of San Francisco, or the Information Technology Consortium. The highest value of the long-term economic benefits to San Francisco’s under-served communities will be most effectively realized if an explicit goal of the Digital Inclusion Framework is to establish a career cluster pathways strategy that promotes upward job mobility to higher-wage jobs by providing exposure to technology for local community residents; providing adequate funding for digital inclusion programs; and fostering strong public-private-institutional relationships.

Explicit linkages to workforce development programs can provide additional federal and state funds through workforce investment boards that may not otherwise be available for more general community technology center programs. Explicit coordination with groups such as the Information Technology Consortium can establish the public-private-institutional partnerships between neighborhood non-profit groups, academic colleges and universities, and private corporations that the non-profit groups might not be able to establish on their own. The City of San Francisco is currently engaged in developing its first, official Economic Strategy, and the cluster analysis from the Economic Strategy should include and inform the explicit linkages between digital inclusion and workforce development, and form a primary foundation for the City’s Economic Strategy.

On January 5, 2007 the City reached a 4-year renewable Final Agreement with EarthLink to design, build, operate, and maintain a wireless network providing free access to all San Francisco residents at a throughput of 300 kilobits per second. The City also granted EarthLink the right to offer a higher-speed premium service to subscribers, with the City receiving 4% of gross revenues from subscriber fees in exchange for the rights-of-way access. On January 9, 2007 Supervisor Jake McGoldrick submitted for consideration a resolution urging the City to consider a municipally-owned wireless network. On January 29, 2007 the City released a feasibility study for a municipally-owned fiber-to-the-home network, which would serve as the backbone upon which the City would build a hybrid fiber/wireless network providing free wireless network access to all City residents.

The City appears to be taking a balanced approach by considering all of its possible alternatives in provisioning broadband Internet access for all San Francisco residents. However, the Supervisors and commissioners who will vote on each alternative should consider the larger perspective of addressing the digital divide in San Francisco in as expedient a manner as possible. The lower costs, rapid deployment time, and mobility features of wireless networks, combined with the severe digital divide that one-third of San Francisco residents already suffer, indicate that San Francisco may best be served by pursuing the wireless initiative with EarthLink. The final agreement with EarthLink has no direct up-front cost to the City, with promise of some revenue on the back-end through subscriber fee access. Moreover, the agreement can be terminated in 4 years, particularly if the useful life of the wireless network expires at that time. The agreement is also non-exclusive, so any carrier, including a municipally-owned carrier, can build and operate a wireless network without restrictions. If a long-term strategy indicates that a municipally-owned fiber/wireless hybrid network is economically feasible and technically superior to the wireless-only network, then San Francisco should pursue that alternative – at that future point in time.

 !   News
The Digital Divide in San Francisco: Latest draft report released on February 7, 2007
This version contains analysis and commentary about the Fiber Feasibility study.
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Fiber Optics for Government and Public Broadband: A Feasibility Study released on January 29, 2007
Link to the CTC report on Municipally-Owned Fiber-to-the-Home Network released on January 11, 2007.
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Budget Analyst report on Municipally-Owned Wireless Network released on January 11, 2007
Link to the Budget Analyst's report on Municipally-Owned Wireless Network released on January 11, 2007.
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Proposed Resolution Urging Consideration of Municipally-Owned Wireless Network released on January 7, 2007
This version contains analysis and commentary about the Proposed Resolution.
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Final Wireless Network Agreement with Earthlink released on January 5, 2007
Link to the Final Wireless Network Agreement with EarthLink released on January 5, 2007.
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