Since the adoption of the Digital Marin Strategic Plan in 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a new version of the National Broadband Map. On November 18, 2022, counties like Marin could, for the first time, identify the type of internet service available to each household and resident. Prior versions of the map were based on provider coverage by census block, where if just one home in a block had service, the entire block was considered as served. Keep in mind, the average block in urban Marin contains 400-500 residential homes. This distorted service availability in favor of the internet service providers (ISPs), masking several concerns which have arisen from the new single-address-based map.
The pandemic focused the nation’s attention on the digital divide between those residents with and those without access to readily available, affordable, adequate, and equitable internet service. Affordability and equity issues in the high-density, low-income communities of San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood and unincorporated Marin City, both of which have significant K-12 student populations, are well documented. But the new FCC map reveals other digital divides between and within communities that were not previously known since they were masked by census block reporting.
Rather than bringing fiber service to entire towns, cities, communities, neighborhoods, or even individual streets, as might be expected, AT&T more often parsed clusters of residential homes in wealthier neighborhoods and census tracts, primarily installing small, noncontiguous fiber networks that carved up the county into what can be described as Swiss cheese.
As troubling, AT&T bypassed almost every apartment building with ten (10) or more units and most condominium complexes when those facilities were often right next to a single-family home with fiber service.
According to the 2017-2021 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, updated on December 8, 2022, 24% of respondents in Marin County reported working from home, with a high of 48% in tract 1302.03 at the north end of Sausalito composed almost entirely of condominiums and apartments. And, despite all efforts made when Marin’s schools were shuttered during the pandemic, an estimated 3,400 school-age children living in the Canal still experience a significant “homework gap” for a lack of adequate internet access at home.
Internet service providers continually raise their prices making affordability an ongoing concern despite federal subsidy programs like the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Now we can add digital divide and inequities between housing types, locations, competitive pricing, and bandwidth capacity.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a single-family home in a neighborhood where AT&T fiber and Xfinity / Comcast cable internet services are available, you can pay less for higher speeds and more bandwidth. When a neighborhood with exceptionally high bandwidth demand shares a single network, the resulting halt in internet performance feels just like rush hour traffic. Rush hour traffic is too many cars and not enough road. Peak usage time is too many users, not enough network capacity. It typically happens weeknights from 7:00-11:00 p.m. when most people are home from work or working late from home and adolescents are not in school and may be doing homework or playing video games. The vast majority of people use the internet simultaneously during peak usage time. The internet connection becomes very sluggish.
Marin County has an average of 4,400 people per square mile. For those living in one of the thousands of apartments or condominiums in the Canal neighborhood (56,000 people per square mile) or the Larkspur Bon Air neighborhood (10,000 people per square mile), Xfinity / Comcast is the only high-speed internet service provider and residents are likely paying higher prices for a neighborhood network node with extremely high demand and significantly lower capacity. The problem is magnified for users that can only afford Xfinity / Comcast’s lowest speed tier (75 Mbps) when a family of four with two school-age children needs a minimum of 800 Mbps to support the bandwidth demand inside the home.
For Marin residents and businesses, equity in access and affordability is critical to their ability to engage in the modern world. Likewise, digital equity is essential to the functioning of government entities and the healthcare system. Broadband is now essential like water, power, schools, and roads. Private enterprises do not typically own or manage these essential infrastructures. Imagine a world where UPS builds and maintains certain roads and highways while FedEx builds its separate highway system and roadways. If UPS and FedEx were to bundle the road (infrastructure) costs with shipping packages, they would operate like current national internet service providers. Marin’s fiber infrastructure will be treated as a public utility to achieve an equitable digital future for all. The infrastructure should always remain separate.