Marin County has launched a new initiative aiming to ensure all residents can access high-speed, affordable internet service.
The “Digital Marin” project organizers plan to begin working with residents, governments and internet providers to determine where the service gaps exist and create an inventory of the broadband equipment the county already has, said Liza Massey, the county chief information officer.
“There wasn’t really a plan like this,” Massey said. “It’s a huge undertaking and it’s great the community has stepped up.”
The plan would allow local governments and other partners to prioritize certain projects, seek grants and shed light on areas where mutually beneficial projects could be conducted across jurisdictional boundaries.
A recent example of such a project was the creation of a free community Wi-Fi network in the Canal neighborhood to address longstanding access issues in the primarily Latino neighborhood.
While neighboring counties have created similar inventories before, proponents of Digital Marin say this new effort goes further by addressing larger issues such as equity; determining what services people need internet for and whether they can access them; and identifying potentials for data sharing.
This “digital divide” can result from several factors relating to income, age, racial equity issues and geography, said Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael’s director of digital service.
“You can go out and get everyone to the internet and that’s a really critical piece, but then we also have to push ourselves a step further and look at what people trying to accomplish and achieve and are those services working for them,” said Woodbury, who also serves on the Digital Marin organizing committee. “That often means the device, it can mean the language, the readability.”
While there are known problem areas — such as lack of broadband equipment in parts of West Marin or affordability and access issues in communities such as the Canal neighborhood and Marin City — the intent of the plan is also to bring up issues that may have been overlooked, Woodbury said.
Several interest groups have been formed representing various sectors of the community such as transportation, residents, education, businesses and health care to provide information to an 11-member steering committee that will be overseeing the plan.
A draft of the Digital Marin plan is set to be released in mid-2021 for review. The county Board of Supervisors allocated about $160,000 to create the blueprint using the aid of the broadband consulting firm Magellan Advisors.
Bruce Vogen is the lead member of the Digital Marin residents committee. While the idea for the plan has been nearly two years in the making, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic this year will surely alter its focus.
“Since our homes have been turned into doctors’ offices and classrooms and places we work in some permanent fashion, the focus is now on delivering services to the home,” Vogen said. “While this is not exclusively that, it is going to take that into account.”
Vogen’s group will also be looking into potential opportunities for broadband expansion such as Novato’s intention to create a new biotechnology campus and the potential high-speed internet fiber hookups to the existing fiber line constructed by LucasFilms running from Skywalker Ranch to San Rafael.
Vogen said an option being explored is to create a non-government body that will work to ensure the short-term and long-term projects are actually implemented.
“It’s a really arduous challenge because all of this needs to be funded if you want to make any serious inroads,” he said.
More information about Digital Marin is online at godigitalmarin.org.
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