County board referral targets local ‘digital divide’

County board referral targets local ‘digital divide’

SALINAS — In the wake of the viral social media image of two young girls sitting on the ground outside a Salinas Taco Bell to access the internet for school, two Monterey County supervisors are calling for the county to lead a wide-ranging effort aimed at closing the “digital divide” for all county residents.

A referral submitted by Board of Supervisors chairman Chris Lopez and County Supervisor Luis Alejo on Tuesday seeks a collaborative effort between the county, local school districts, area cities and community partners to address the issue, including advocacy for solutions at the state and federal levels.

The digital divide refers to the difference in internet access between disparate communities and people based on the adequacy of both internet connectivity and available digital devices. It has come into starker focus during the COVID-19 pandemic including concerning distance learning and students.

Alejo noted the attention generated by the photo of the two students. He argued the issue presented the county with “a real opportunity to lead.” He said county and school officials had already started working on expanding digital access in his district, including the city of Salinas and through a partnership between the County Office of Education and the Hewlett Packard Enterprise. He added it would also be addressing access in other urban and rural parts of the county.

Supervisor Mary Adams reiterated her call issued last month when the county board allocated $1 million in federal CARES Act funding to enhancing digital access for a countywide internet access initiative.

“Without that equity and opportunity, our county won’t have the opportunity to thrive,” Adams said.

Among the actions, the referral calls for are included advocacy at the Federal Communications Commission to treat broadband internet access as a necessary utility, as well as state legislation aimed at state programs to “expand internet access, generate needed revenue, and make it easier for local governments to obtain funding to move local projects forward more expeditiously.”

To that end, the referral also requests the county formally request and sponsor state legislation to place a multi-billion-dollar universal broadband bond on the 2022 ballot.

And, the referral calls for a countywide survey to engage residents regarding their “needs and concerns” related to the digital divide including online student distance learning and access to affordable service.

A report to the county board is requested within a month, according to the referral.

Alejo noted the state Public Utilities Commission is already pursuing an internet access program for low-income residents similar to the Lifeline program that provides cell phone access to the needy.

Also Tuesday, the board postponed for a week approval of the county’s response authored by Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales to a civil grand jury report on enhancing public access to pesticide use information to allow a revised response.

Under consent on Tuesday, the board ratified county Health Officer Dr. Edward Moreno’s declaration of a local health emergency as a result of poor air quality produced by the local wildfires, approved a five-year garbage contract extension with Waste Management that includes a 13.5% rate increase, endorsed the name Salinas Housing Advancement, Resource & Education Center or SHARE Center for the new $7.2 million regional homeless shelter under construction at 855 East Laurel Dr., authorized issuance of a certificate of substantial completion for the first phase of the new $62 million Juvenile Hall project and adopted an ordinance establishing increased penalties of up to $25,000 per day for violations of county archaeological and cultural resource protections.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

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