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Supervisor's Report

Expanding broadband Internet connectivity should be a top priority

Internet tower: One way to reach more people. photo: phil hart / flickr

Access to fast, affordable, and reliable Inter-net is no longer just a “nice to have” – I would argue it has become an economic right in today’s world. Years ago when the Internet first launched, it would have been impossible to forecast the importance that it would play in our daily lives. From empowering economic growth, to empowering the mass collecting and sharing of information, knowledge, and just operating our everyday lives – we need to make sure that we do everything in our power to make sure all of our San Francisco residents have access to the Internet.

Through the city’s expanding wireless network known as #SFWiFi and the city’s Community Broadband Network, we are starting to enable more residents and visitors to have access to the Internet free of charge. However, having Internet in public spaces does not replace access to the Internet at the home, and we know that currently 12 percent of San Francisco residents do not yet have Internet access at the home. Sadly, these 12 percent who are not connected skew toward low-income families, ethnic minorities, the unemployed, the youth, the elderly, and those living with disabilities.

Communities and individuals who do not have access to the Internet are at a systematic disadvantage compared to those that do. From being able to access information on any topic in the world, to applying for a job online, or accessing one of the many growing number of government services available via the Internet, government has to play a role in helping to connect people who lack access.

Over the past few years, I worked to get more communities online that lack Internet access with our WiFi in parks, plazas, and open spaces project at 32 locations across San Francisco. With Google’s generous grant that provided the funding for the project, our office made sure to prioritize neighborhoods and communities where we knew the digital divide exists. In addition to the Marina Green, we lit up parks and recreation centers in the Tenderloin, Chinatown, Excelsior, Sunset, and the Bayview to try to provide more access to individuals and families who desperately needed it. Now, children and families who use city recreation centers can have a safe and secure place to learn, broaden their horizons, and improve their outcomes. The WiFi in parks, plazas, and open spaces project shows that it is indeed possible for government to play an active and leading role in getting communities connected that are not.

One of the areas that I believe is ripe for addressing the digital divide further here in San Francisco is in our city’s public school system. Recently, the state — which controls and provides the vast majority of resources for our public school system here in San Francisco — passed regulations that require public schools throughout the state to administer their standardized tests online. The state regulations, while critical to improving learning outcomes in our schools, also present a challenge for schools that lack the infrastructure and revenue to support the new regulations. Federal programs and resources exist to help the schools make the necessary upgrades to get more of their students online, but it is becoming increasingly clear that more resources will be needed to ensure that San Francisco’s public schools can provide our students with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in the 21st century world.

I firmly believe we should do everything in our power to support our school district in meeting these new mandates because, if done right, we have the opportunity to make San Francisco’s public schools one of the top and most innovative school districts in the nation. The opportunity in front of us to create digital, comprehensive, individualized learning plans based on each individual student’s level and need to improve their outcomes is something in which we cannot fail. I hope that everyone in San Francisco believes all of San Francisco’s youth should have the tools to learn the skills they need to make them successful in an increasingly competitive world.

Working on expanding broadband connectivity to further close the digital divide is one of the most important things San Francisco can address, because the investments we make today will come back more than two-fold and make our city stronger and more successful in the future. In a city that has some of the brightest minds inside and outside of technology, stay tuned for this issue to grow and for potential solutions proposed, so we can give every San Francisco child the opportunity they deserve.

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Mark Farrell is District 2 supervisor. E-mail mark.farrell@sfgov.org or phone 415-554-7752.

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