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How Equal Access Santa Cruz County is Bridging the Digital Divide

Could this be a model for fixing the injustices of the digital divide?

A partnership between business, government, community groups and philanthropy is making it possible for students like Isaiah Lopez to get online in Watsonville. PHOTO: JEREMY LEZIN

When distance learning began at the outset of the pandemic, former farmworker Aracely Fernandez, a resident of the Buena Vista Migrant Center in Watsonville, had no reliable internet access. Her fifth grade son, a student in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, would need it to continue attending public school. 

Dependent on her husband’s income from his job picking strawberries since an injury had taken her off the fields, Fernandez knew that $70 a month for broadband service was not an option for the family’s budget. So when remote learning began in March 2020, she would drive around with her 11-year-old, trying to find a signal strong enough that he wouldn’t get booted from online classes. “We were so frustrated,” she says. “It wasn’t our fault he would get kicked out. We thought, ‘This is how it is.’” 

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District, where 79.2% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and 40.3% are English learners, set up 4,200 hot spots and distributed over 20,000 Chromebook laptops. 

In some cases, hot spots worked, depending on the strength of the cell signal. For those who couldn’t rely on that, the district developed “safe spaces” where students could come to campuses and learn in stable cohorts at the school sites. Still, “students not being able to rely on their internet or hot spot continued to be off of their classroom,” resulting in a “lack of continuity with their education,” PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez says. 

The hot spots were “nice as a Band-Aid solution,” says Juan Morales-Rocha, a UCSC graduate who is an activist, community organizer and design analyst with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios Publishing. But hot spots were never going to work for the Buena Vista site. In a place so remote, “it doesn’t fit as intended,” unable to consistently support Google Classroom and Zoom. 

This year, that finally changed. 

“They gave us internet,” Fernandez says, sounding both pleased and a little surprised. “It is fast; the signal doesn’t go away.” Fernandez is satisfied that she no longer has to drive her son around, searching for a reliable connection they may or may not be able to find. 

“This internet works well for us,” she says. “All the neighbors have it. We have no more signal problems.” 

Where did it come from? She wants to check, and takes a moment to go examine la caja—“the box”—that had been placed in her home, at no cost to her family. 

“It says ‘Cruzio.’”

A Bridge to Equal Access

More precisely, it took a unique partnership between the community, private industry and philanthropy—Cruzio, the Rotary Club of Watsonville, Pajaro Valley Unified School District and the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County—to birth Equal Access Santa Cruz County, or EASC, which launched in September of last year. The innovative initiative demonstrates a local-level, grassroots solution toward bridging what has become known as the “digital divide.” It’s a huge community effort, a project that brought a number of people and organizations together.

Morales-Rocha knew the problems that Fernandez and her family had been facing well. He grew up in the Buena Vista Center and understood the depths of the digital divide long before the pandemic that disproportionately affected his community, which is majority Latinx (and has had nearly 60% of all Covid-19 cases, even though it is only 29% of the county’s population). 

“I knew because my folks are still there,” he says. “A lot of my family lives there.” Well before Covid-19 forced the issue into the spotlight, Morales-Rocha was trying to do something about it. 

A search on Google Maps highlights the issue. The Buena Vista Center is “next to a prison and a dump,” he says. “There’s definitely some history there in terms of the displacement of people, putting the people far from amenities.”

As someone “who’s been looking at it bird’s-eye-view,” he says, “I was personally trying to make something happen in the camp in 2019. I did organizing in my undergrad, tried to make something happen.” Back then, he says, “nothing happened.”

Looking for some way to get the camp connected, Morales-Rocha contacted the Center for Farmworker Families, UCSC and DigitalNEST—an organization serving Watsonville and Salinas youth, teaching digital skills for greater economic opportunity. After a couple months, though, nothing concrete had panned out. “My little sister was about to start middle school,” he says. “I’d go visit them and the internet was super-slow, she was getting booted off Zoom.” 

Interestingly, once upon a time the camp had been wired: Morales-Rocha had internet access during his time there. He used YouTube to learn how to play guitar and ultimately became so interested in computers he went to UCSC to study game design and cognitive science. “With my first financial aid check, I bought parts for a computer,” he says. Morales-Rocha went on to study human-computer interaction, games and playable media, graduating with dual degrees. 

“There was internet access at the camp,” he says. “AT&T used to service it as a DSL provider. Whatever the reason, they stopped servicing the internet.” 

Buena Vista’s location behind the treeline made for a tough place to build the necessary infrastructure. The need for equal access existed before the pandemic, but as with many social injustices, Covid-19 served to spotlight the problem. Once the virus hit and daily life moved almost entirely online, the consequences of the inequities became obviously dire. Online school attendance for children of farmworkers like Fernandez plummeted, becoming as irregular as internet access in their area. The year represented a major disruption in the education of students already at a disadvantage. 

The problem wasn’t limited to children attending school. Farmworkers lacking connectivity for accessing digital platforms were excluded when things like medical appointments—that would have taken place in person—moved largely online. Farm work is notoriously taxing on health and well-being, even debilitating, so access to health care is key. This community least likely to reliably get online was also one with the most to lose. 

Tony Guizar Orozco holds the broadband wiring being installed at Buena Vista by Equal Access Santa Cruz County. The group’s stated purpose is to ‘bridge the digital divide and bring true high-speed broadband to every family in the Santa Cruz community, regardless of income level.’ PHOTO: ALANA MATTHEWS

Digitally Divided

Since the mid-1990s, this connectivity inequity has been widely dubbed the digital divide. Back then, a 1995 report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” revealed “widespread inequalities in national ICT [information and communication technologies] access, with migrant or ethnic minority groups and older, less-affluent people living in rural areas with low educational attainments being especially excluded from internet services,” writes Eva Johanna Schweitzer, a contributor to SAGE Publications’s Encyclopedia of Political Communication.

In the stone age of the internet, all you needed to connect was a phone line—a public utility like water, gas and electricity. Now, online access is made available when a private company builds the infrastructure, thus creating the inequality of access. While equal access needs to be made a priority, the idea of making the internet a public utility is a hot-button topic involving factions like those seen in the net neutrality debate. Infrastructure investments can be controversial as well, and President Joe Biden’s proposed plan to invest $100 billion in providing fast internet has already led to some communications companies worrying the plan might favor fiber over their own means of providing online access, Politico reports.

Grants are available for companies to wire rural areas, but as Peggy Dolgenos, CEO of local internet service provider (ISP) Cruzio, says, “old infrastructure was falling apart, and new infrastructure was being built in profitable places as the internet is not a public utility. Everybody could get the early internet, but now you can only get it when a private company builds infrastructure.” 

The grants available to wire rural areas tend to be for large regions: Montana, Oklahoma, Wyoming. “A big grant will cover the whole place,” Dolgenos says. “Our rural areas are small—in-between two hills, in-between Soquel and Aptos. Also, the low-income areas are fairly small where we are—mobile home parks right in the middle of other neighborhoods, but an area that’s lower income. Migrant labor camps are both low-income and hard to reach, far away.” 

Currently home to 103 farmworkers and their families, the Buena Vista Center, made up of freestanding adjacent units, fits that description precisely. With hard-to-reach places such as Buena Vista, Dolgenos says, “economically it didn’t make sense [to build the infrastructure], but the grants were not available.” The result, she says, was “pockets of inequality of access, where surrounding neighborhoods would have better internet.”

Luis Ruelas works on installing high-speed broadband at the Buena Vista Migrant Center in Watsonville. The result of a collaboration between business, civic and philanthropic groups that came together to form Equal Access Santa Cruz County, the project was completed this month. PHOTO: ALANA MATTHEWS

Foundation of Values

Dolgenos and James Hackett, Cruzio’s director of business operations and development, call themselves “scrappy innovators”—“Cruzio was one of the first private ISPs in the whole country back in 1989,” Dolgenos says. 

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education had reached out to Cruzio to say, “We have students with no home internet, they can’t afford an internet connection, what are we going to do about it?” Cruzio offered discounted service, but it wasn’t something they could handle on their own. 

“We were being asked by other community partners about issues of the digital divide with homeschooling,” Hackett says. “What can we do to help?”

Through EASC, fundraising for the Buena Vista Migrant Center was completed in December 2020. The money came from donors as large as Driscoll’s and the collective fundraising efforts of the Rotary Club of Watsonville, to anonymous individuals and Cruzio customers voluntarily adding $10 to $15 a month to their bill to help subsidize the project. Cruzio started to build out new wireless distribution points in South County and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District and wired the Buena Vista Migrant Center.

Though it came together quickly, relief provided by this step toward digital equity was a long time coming. This entirely local project involved many hands: the visionaries, the technicians, the donors—who often overlapped. 

“We went from a lot of people talking and disparate efforts to having concerted fundraising, awareness, technological skill, education,” says Susan True, CEO of the Community Foundation. “Everything came together so fast.” 

Buena Vista residents like Fernandez now have free internet access for at least five years.

“Jesus Lopez on our own staff, whose parents are migrant workers, now he’s running it and helping other families,” Hackett says. “The kids in Buena Vista could be future leaders of the county. We have to make sure they don’t get left behind.”

That was the point where the Community Foundation entered the picture. “Now we had a model to get donations,” Hackett says. EASC’s funding comes through the Community Foundation, while Cruzio builds out the technical components for internet access. 

“I’m such a believer that when we can bring the community together we can get things done,” True says. “From our perspective, as soon as superintendents announced school closures, we thought, ‘Where are kids going to eat? What are moms going to do about their jobs and education when they lose their shifts and wages because they’re home with the kids?’ From the beginning, our community has known we can’t wait for people outside to help us. We did that on so many issues in 2020. The American Rescue Plan and all the stuff around high-speed internet and infrastructure and broadband … it’s exciting, but when is it going to get to us?” 

Meanwhile, the Rotary Club of Watsonville had also been aware of the problem and simultaneously working on fundraising. “When it became apparent kids weren’t in school and that disadvantage was escalating, we started putting out feelers to see if there was a way we could help,” says Carol Turley, 2019-2020 president of Watsonville Rotary.  

Deutron Kebebew, founder and president at MENtors: Driving Change for Boys, Men & Dads, who is now the EASC project lead for Watsonville Rotary, was the one who ultimately connected with Morales-Rocha. 

“We all knew the challenge of Wi-Fi,” says Kebebew. Morales-Rocha started listening in on those meetings, “taking questions about the camp,” he says. “I took on a liaison role with folks there.” The Rotarians quickly raised $20,000. Watsonville Rotary President Kristin Fabos notes the speed at which the Rotarians stepped up and exceeded their fundraising goals, “almost overnight.” 

“That basically got Cruzio the seed money needed,” says Kebebew. “At the same time, they were talking with the Community Foundation to launch the project. They contacted a large donor saying, ‘Rotary’s doing this, could you consider a larger fund?’”

Pathways Forward

“All those different partners came in to develop this EASC initiative so our families weren’t impeded by the digital divide,” says Superintendent Rodriguez. The quick upload and download speeds needed to stream and download information and videos “takes a whole other level, and it was an opportunity for an entire community to come around to something we knew was an equity issue all along. The pandemic shone a light on it.”

As of this month, the Buena Vista Migrant Center project was completed. 

Chris Frost, director of infrastructure and technology at Cruzio, explains that now Buena Vista residents have “the same tech connections we deliver to our full retail customers,” Frost says, “fully bridging the digital divide.” The center has the “same equipment used in downtown Santa Cruz outside our fiber footprint.”  

EASC is working with Facebook Connectivity Accelerator and Geeks Without Frontiers to expand its reach. “It’s something that could be replicated up and down as long as there’s a community foundation and ISP that are willing to help,” says Jesus Lopez, Cruzio’s sales and marketing manager. “It’s unfortunate it was something as horrible as Covid that pushed a lot of this forward, but it brought a lot of this stuff to light.”

The EASC initiative sets an example for programs of the same kind nationwide, says True, demonstrating the power that community efforts to address local problems and issues can have. “Any community that has a local ISP, and a community foundation” can recreate this, she says. “Everyone’s got Rotaries, a school, a rooftop.”   

The Cruzio team reports on the positive effects of the center’s internet access. “Juan [Morales-Rocha] has sisters in there using it, and super-stoked with it,” Frost says. It’s a very different scenario from the pandemic’s frustrating early days of being booted off mid-class. Even when learning is fully in-person again, the opportunities internet access provides remain. 

And as Kebebew prepares to step into the presidency role of Watsonville Rotary this July, he looks to the future and sees the work ahead to be done. “What is the digital literacy capacity? Now that you’re wired, look at the potential you have to do your banking, to learn new skills …. It’s not just giving the tool but communicating how you use it. That becomes the next conversation. We are not done.”

Morales-Rocha’s father is using Duolingo on his phone. And Fernandez is taking her own first online class—in computer literacy.

To donate to EASC, visit cfscc.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=1961. To add it to your Cruzio bill, go to cruzio.com/equal-access-santa-cruz-county.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sandino Gomez

    May 3, 2021 at 9:56 am

    What a great story and kudos to everyone who helped make it possible. As a teacher in PVUSD I know connectivity issues are a thing and have worked with my students all year long to create work arounds and understandings so they can still participate. I am so stoked that people are doing something about this and as stated above, this will only benefit the community more and more as we look out for our friends and neighbors. Si se puede folks.

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