Emergency Broadband Benefit Fraud Alert

Needs Assessment

Introduction

Two of Digital Marin’s guiding principles directly influenced the needs assessment phase of the Digital Marin project.

  1. The Strategic Plan development process is inclusive and collaborative, involving all sectors in Marin.
  2. The resulting Strategic Plan is community driven to address what they say is important.

To satisfy these guiding principles, the Digital Marin project conducted significant community outreach by dividing Marin’s stakeholders into seven (7) Communities, often called sectors, and assigning at least one (1) member of the project’s Executive Steering Committee (ESC) as a liaison to each.  More information about the project’s ESC is available on the About ESC page at www.GoDigitalMarin.org.

Digital Marin Communities

The Communities, ESC liaisons, and acronyms follow. More information about each Community and their activities is available at www.GoDigitalMarin.org under the Communities section.

  1. Business and Economic Development (B/ED) – Mike Blakely, Marin Economic Forum
  2. Education – Ross Millerick, Novato Unified School District Trustee and Ann Mathieson, Marin Promise Partnership
  3. Government and Emergency Management (GEM) – Michael Frank, Marin General Services Authority
  4. Health and Community Based Organizations (H/CBO) – Johnathan Logan, Marin Community Foundation
  5. Internet, Communications, and Technology (ICT) Providers - Javier Trujillo, Marin County
  6. Planning, Transportation, and Public Works (PTPW) – Elise Semonian, Town of San Anselmo
  7. Residents – Bruce Vogen, Resident

Work Groups

Each Community established a Work Group to support their Communities’ specific outreach efforts. The Community Work Groups assisted with efforts such as developing focus group and survey questions, identifying people or groups to be contacted, and reviewing their Community’s subsequent outreach findings. ESC and Work Group members also participated in the review of the combined needs assessment findings and the Digital Infrastructure Needs and Options Report drafted by the project’s consultant, Magellan Advisors.

In addition to the 12 ESC members, a total of 56 individuals participated in Community Work Groups. Specific names and their affiliations are available on www.GoDigitalMarin.org under the Communities section.  Some ESC and Work Group members participated in more than one Work Group.

Overall Needs Statements

Seven needs statements that directly relate to the project’s goals were created.

Globe with word internet in yellow banner over itBroadband for all
Universally accessible and consistent broadband is needed throughout Marin

Money bag with green check markAffordable internet service
Marin needs affordable broadband service, so cost is not a barrier to entry

globe with chart and upward facing arrowResilient and reliable communication networks
Redundancy and resiliency are needed for all digital infrastructure

Devices- Laptop, tablet and phone.Devices for access
Robust end-user devices are needed to access all digital opportunities

hand holding phone with four app imagesDigital literacy
Collaborations are needed to help address the lack of digital literacy for providers and consumers of internet content and services

Two laptops exchanging informationCollaboration and data sharing
Collaborations and data sharing are needed to improve service delivery, increase efficiencies, and provide insights

Laptop with lines leading to people above.Digital adoption
Trust is needed to increase usage of digital resources

 

Marin’s Digital Divide

Despite its relative wealth and location near San Francisco, a major technology hub, Marin still has residents who suffer from the digital divide - the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not have it.  While many of these residents are concentrated in the five (5) geographic areas noted below, lack of access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet is not limited to these areas and is found throughout Marin County.

  • Canal Neighborhood in San Rafael
  • Marin City
  • Two areas in Novato
  • West Marin

These five geographic areas are also designated as un- or underserved in terms of broadband service.  Collaborations to bridge aspects of the digital divide are already underway in three (3) of these areas – the Canal Neighborhood, Marin City, and West Marin.  As noted in the Residents Community section of this Report, more work is needed to identify the two underserved areas in Novato along with the community advocates necessary to lead collaborative efforts.

For example, the City of San Rafael, County of Marin, Canal Alliance, and San Rafael City Schools teamed up to build a free and public Wi-Fi network for the Canal Neighborhood during the pandemic.  Designed with resiliency in mind, generators keep parts of the network up during major power outages, allowing residents to access critical emergency information when home internet connectivity may be down. Usage has steadily increased since it was first deployed in late October 2020.

Canal Wifi Usage Graph
Figure 1- Canal Neighborhood Free Wi-Fi Usage

More information about this collaboration and others can be found at www.GoDigitalMarin.org on the Collaborations page.

The needs assessment also identified another group of residents who frequently experience the digital divide - Marin’s older adults and people with disabilities. People in these groups are not geographically concentrated.  Instead, they are dispersed throughout Marin. Even when service is available and affordable, these residents often face other challenges and require intentional, targeted efforts to help them bridge the digital divide. Without these efforts, more than 12,900 Marin residents with disabilities under age 65 and nearly 60,000 residents 65 years old and older can be shut out of the increasingly digital world. Population estimates are based on U.S. Census Bureau data (V2019) for Marin County.

Causes of Marin’s Digital Divide

In addition to a lack of or poor quality internet service, Marin residents and businesses often face other issues that contribute to the digital divide, including:

  • Inability to afford internet service;
  • Lack of devices to access the internet;
  • Low levels of digital literacy;
  • Language and other accessibility barriers; and
  • Mistrust or misunderstanding of the benefits of being online.

When asked why they do not have high-speed internet at their home or business, the number one reason respondents gave was that it is too expensive. Respondents to the standard Online Residents Survey (ORS) are paying 5.82% more for internet only service than the $70/month national average.  Discounted internet service programs are available to qualified households in Marin but not everyone who qualifies takes advantage of the programs.  Some cannot since they do not have service available to their household, the second most often cited reason for not having high-speed internet service according to survey respondents. For some households with available internet service, the reduced price is still unaffordable or they simply don’t know about the programs. One incumbent in Marin allows government entities to purchase multi-year bulk internet service subscriptions for qualified households through a partnership program. This approach was used to provide internet service in Marin City where infrastructure is available but cost is a barrier for many. Additional marketing to qualified households and expanding the use of bulk internet service subscriptions can increase usage of discount internet service programs.

While many digital literacy training programs were identified during the needs assessment process, Marin lacks the comprehensive, coordinated approach needed for all residents to achieve a baseline level of digital competency. Respondents from across Marin’s Communities stressed that digital literacy training needs to be tailored to the audience and consistent in quality and standards.

Another area of inequality in Marin is access to online services.  When service providers in the Health and Communities Based Organizations Community were asked about their online services, survey respondents indicated that, on average, 25% of their recipients could not access them. Responses to a poll conducted during a meeting of service providers had the same results, 25% of their recipients could not access online services. One quarter of Marin’s most vulnerable population is not able to get needed services when they are offered digitally.  The cause is one or more of the common aspects that contribute to the digital divide.

Marin's Device Disparity

The needs assessment findings highlight the device disparity among Marin’s residents and businesses.  When asked what devices were connected to their home internet service, 678 respondents to the standard ORS reported a total of nearly 5,800 devices; 8.5 per household. In contrast, 173 respondents to a survey conducted of residents in Marin Housing Authority (MHA) subsidized housing reported a total of 443 devices; 2.6 per household. A 2020 study regarding consumer electronics found that U.S. households on average have 10 connected devices.

In both cases, some of the difference between the project’s survey findings and the U.S. study may be caused by under-reporting, especially of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, like security systems, sensors, personal assistants, and other smart devices.  Even with more accurate counts of devices by MHA survey respondents, the average per household would likely still fall
well short of even 8.5 devices.

Graph showing devices per household
Figure 2- Devices Per Household

The same 2020 study found that the average U.S. household has two computers. When comparing computers/laptops per household in Marin, survey respondents reported a range of less than one half (.4) per household in the Canal Neighborhood through 3.3 per household for students at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael.

This data in the above chart is based on the following survey sources.

  • Canal neighborhood (Canal) survey conducted by the City of San Rafael
  • Bolinas Stinson Union School District (BSUSD) Connectivity Committee Survey
  • Marin Housing Authority (MHA) Residents Survey conducted by the Digital Marin project
  • Online Residents Survey (ORS) hosted by Magellan Advisors and conducted by the Digital Marin project
  • Terra Linda High School (TLHS) Student Survey conducted by students at the Marin Academy
Graph showing computers/laptopns per Household from 5 different areas
Figure 3- Computers/Laptops per Household

Broadband Cost and Quality

Analysis of data collected during the needs assessment found no correlation between what residents pay and the speed or quality of their internet service.  When asked about various aspects of their internet service, price consistently had the highest rate of dissatisfaction with an average of 41% of residents and 33% of businesses rating it as bad/terrible. Despite paying 5.82% more for internet only service than the $70/month national average, only 55% of all respondents to the ORS rated their overall internet service as good/excellent, with 64% of all respondents from business rating it that way. While 15 ORS respondents reported that they are paying $80/month for internet only service, their download speeds ranged from 5 Mbps to 465 Mbps.

When asked whether they would pay more for faster and more reliable internet services, just over 11% of all respondents to the standard ORS indicated that they believe their current service is already fast and reliable. Respondents paying approximately 12% more for internet only service than the $70/month national average said they "would likely pay a little more," showing some price flexibility. While over 62% of all respondents would pay more for better service, nearly half of them can’t afford to do so (29.6%).

Broadband Availability and Speeds

The second most often cited reason for not having high-speed internet at home or a place of business was lack of availability. Magellan Advisors’ inventory revealed that Marin has relatively few network assets and the incumbent internet providers’ service areas do not cover much of Marin and overlap each other only in the more densely populated eastern areas. They also found that while the five (5) geographic areas noted above lack connectivity options, so do the more prosperous areas of Marin.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) data, Marin County has 591 households that are unserved, i.e. either have no internet service available in their community or service that is below the 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload (25/3) broadband speed policy set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Of those 591 households, 208 have service but it is at or below 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up (6/1). These households are identified as underserved. CPUC’s most recently released data shows that Marin has 3,987 unserved households at their new recommended speeds of 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up (100/20).  The data for speeds of 6/1 and 25/3 also identified 1,856 households with no service, i.e. broadband service is available but these households choose not to receive it. The new data regarding speeds of 100/20 did not provide the number of households with no service.

SpeedServedNo ServiceUnservedUnderserved
At underserved speeds of 6/1102,5281,856383208
At FCC standard speeds of 25/3102,5281,856591N/A
At CPUC recommended speeds of 100/20100,988N/A3,987N/A

 

The table above is based on CPUC’s 2020 data and estimates.  According to the data, Marin County has 104,975 households representing 260,831 residents. The CPUC data is considered questionable since it is self-reported by internet service providers and the threshold for identifying what households are “served” is low.  Detractors believe that the number of un- and underserved households is higher than reported.  This issue appears to be the case in Marin County. For example, ORS speed tests for households in served areas reported results as low as 681 kb/s down and 126 kb/s up.  As such, these findings show that even “served” households, i.e. those identified as receiving at least 25/3 or higher, experience speeds below FCC standards for broadband.

The current FCC standard of 25/3 was established in 2015.  A six year old standard is not viable given the rapid pace of technology change and users’ needs and demands. Recent experience showed us that service rapidly degrades or becomes unusable when multiple people in a household and a substantial number of residents work, attend school, receive services, and interact online. Additionally, while download speeds were traditionally considered more important than upload ones, users today need to upload large files and more content which requires rethinking that approach. In terms of Marin residents’ internet experience, ORS findings showed that slowdowns and outages occurred several times a year for 61% of respondents and almost daily for over 20% of them.

More information about broadband policies, standards, and service maps can be found on the FCC’s website.

Recommendations for Additional Needs Assessment

While the Digital Marin project worked to collect needs from the largest number of Marin’s residents and businesses possible, more assessment is needed in several areas.

  1. Identify and conduct additional needs assessment activities in the two under-served areas of Novato and identify community advocates to lead collaborative efforts to bridge the digital divide in these areas.
  2. Conduct additional needs assessment efforts in West Marin beyond what was done by the Bolinas Stinson Union School District Connectivity Committee, especially when digital projects are proposed or planned for this area.
  3. Conduct additional needs assessment efforts of students across Marin, especially when digital projects are proposed or planned for them.
  4. Conduct additional needs assessment of the Business Community’s digital needs as part of the development of a Marin County Economic Strategy.
  5. Conduct needs assessment of actual recipients of Health and CBO services, especially when digital projects are proposed or planned for them.
  6. Conduct additional needs assessment of non-profits/CBO’s digital needs, especially when projects are proposed or planned for this sector.
  7. Obtain detailed demographic data especially for projects that continue or project proposals that emerge as a result of Digital Marin’s needs assessment or Strategic Plan.
  8. Conduct additional needs assessment of the older adult and persons with disabilities communities to better define and recommend solutions to address their specific needs and ensure that all digital projects and initiatives include addressing their needs.
  9. Obtain more information about consumer internet prices and speeds by conducting a year-long speed test coupled with an evaluation of individual service provider invoices voluntarily provided by consumers.
  10. Conduct additional assessment activities to identify ways to offset the cost of constructing an open access public sector broadband network including analysis of current spending and performance metrics (number of circuits and speed) for government entities, schools, anchor institutions, and other related publicly-funded entities to identify spending that could be reduced or diverted.
  11. Complete the assessment regarding the ability to use the strands of dark fiber in the SMART easement allocated to the County and the cities through which it passes in the License Agreement between SMART and Sonic.
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