The internet is a fundamental element of our lives. From our economy to education, it provides us with access to opportunities and critical services. The COVID pandemic and other recent disruptive events underscore Marin’s need to end internet access inequities and bridge the digital divide - the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not have it. Students need reliable home connections for distance learning. Families need online access to information and support services. Our businesses and growing remote workforce demand more from internet providers to remain competitive. High speed internet has become equal to water and electricity.
In June 2019, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved the development of a Digital Infrastructure Strategic Plan, which became the Digital Marin project. At the same time, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury released the Marin’s Telecommunications Disconnect Report underscoring the need for improved leadership and coordination of telecommunications efforts. Digital Marin became a collaborative effort involving representatives from every sector including residents, business, education, government, healthcare, non-profits, utilities, and technology providers. From the outset, the project envisioned a future where everyone in Marin has access to universally available, affordable, reliable, resilient, and safe broadband with robust devices, technical support, and the digital literacy needed to take part in an ever increasing digital world. This vision also included serving residents, businesses, and other organizations better through public and private collaborations and sharing of data and resources.
The needs assessment findings solidified our belief that access to high-speed internet is crucial for participation in today’s society, but barriers exist.
The digital needs assessment process was conducted through community outreach. This approach created collaborations among Marin’s residents, businesses, and public and private sectors that will serve us well moving forward. It confirmed that the price and availability of internet services in Marin are consistent with other Bay Area counties. With that said, our consultants, Magellan Advisors, found that despite Marin County’s position next to a global technology hub, the number of entities owning network infrastructure, and the relative affluence of our population, the County has few network assets. They also found that internet access infrastructure and broadband options are no better than most other communities across the country. The findings solidified our belief that access to high-speed internet is crucial for participation in today’s digital society, but barriers exist for some residents. Residents and businesses without broadband service most often cited the lack of availability and cost of service as reasons for not having it.
The needs assessment also better defined where Marin is experiencing the digital divide. While residents in five geographic areas - the Canal Neighborhood, Marin City, two areas in Novato, and West Marin – most disproportionally experience it, so do Marin’s older adults and persons with disabilities. Findings also showed that lack of availability or competitive options, inconsistent service levels and pricing, and other barriers exist to varying degrees in Marin, even in affluent areas, and the need for improved digital literacy, better devices, and increased digital adoption cuts across all socio-economic groups. These findings influenced the Plan’s focus on equity. Details about the findings from the needs assessment and gap analysis are available in the Digital Marin Needs Assessment Report. (See Appendix 1)
Marin’s physical access to the internet has been left in the hands of private companies that are not required and do not provide universal service. This approach is not unusual for counties of all sizes and geographic makeup. It created the lack of competition, service gaps in less profitable areas like West Marin, and other outcomes we found. For example, the telecommunications industry is currently advertising “5G” as an alternative to wired internet. Based on past experience, this new technology will be installed where providers expect the highest return on investment, not where the systems are most needed in Marin, such as the Canal area.
Hands on leadership at the local level, backed by State and Federal government and partnerships with the private sector, are needed to solve our problems and meet local digital needs. Achieving Digital Marin’s vision also requires collaboration, time, funding, policies, programs, and a continued commitment particularly to those areas of Marin that are deemed un- or under-served by Federal and State laws. Establishing a community driven operating entity, launched and incubated within the County of Marin organization but supported by all sectors, is vital to success.
Actions taken to implement the Plan must include transparent tracking and reporting of performance, disaggregated by factors like race, age, and income, to ensure that resources are equitably applied especially to those with the most need. This Plan includes key performance indicators (KPIs) - quantifiable measures that gauge progress - that will be further refined during implementation of the Plan. Progress will be measured and reported using these KPIs.
This Strategic Plan is the roadmap to move Marin from where we are today to a better digital future by creating leadership, governance, collaboration, and actions that advance broadband deployment and digital adoption. Creation of the Plan was made possible by members of the Executive Steering Committee, Work Groups, Project Team, and the project’s consultant, Magellan Advisors. It is better because of the advice, input, and feedback of over 3,000 Marin residents, business owners, community advocates, and employees from government, education, and other industries.