Mario Ramirez Garcia, 10, attends online class in the bedroom he shares with his sister
(Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters)
Civic Life

$500K grant to expand broadband access to as many as 4,000 low-income families

The What: On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors announced an expanded partnership with Cruzio Internet, with the goal of providing low- and no-cost broadband to up to 4,000 households by the end of 2022. The program, funded through a county grant, would nearly double the funding toward broadband access already available, with an added $500,000 from the American Rescue Plan.

The So What: The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated a national digital divide as many families felt the impact of slow internet speeds and connectivity issues. While federal programs such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit program and more localized efforts including Equal Access Santa Cruz County have provided services, one of the continued challenges is funding.

With this new money from the county, Cruzio Internet representatives believe there could be up to 20 new distribution sites scattered across the county, each able to serve between 200 and 250 subscribers for about a year. Extending service beyond that point will require additional funding, county and nonprofit officials said.

Backgrounder: Launched in September 2020, the Equal Access Santa Cruz County program — a collaboration between Cruzio Internet and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County — has reached over 700 students and families.

“The new infrastructure we’ve built is capable of supporting over 2,000 households — we’re excited to be able to serve so many more,” said James Hackett, director of business operations and development for Cruzio Internet.

Kevin Heuer, who administers the grant for the Community Foundation, said there were clear issues with broadband connection when virtual school and work were put into practice. In the largest school district in the county, Pajaro Valley Unified, Heuer heard from many families who often drove to their schools at the start of the pandemic, trying to tap into the Wi-Fi for classes.

That led to a more concerted effort to launch the Equal Access program, brought online in September 2020. In the time since, the program has raised over $850,000 through community donors who see broadband access as a necessity for residents.

“We needed to change the scenario, and we were willing to take on some risk to bridge that gap,” Heuer said. “We wanted to see if we could bring people together and create a proof of concept — if you invest in broadband access, we can expand the impact.”

Voices: Both Heuer and Hackett say this new funding is a sign of what’s to come, and the importance of this community connection to address inequities that affect so many people.

“I see this as a great example of local philanthropy being the spark, and leading to local impact and funding services,” said Heuer. “This is expensive work, but the cost of those families and students being disconnected is even more expensive.”

Ultimately, Hackett said the goal is to have a widespread impact: “We want to ensure that as many folks in need can access and qualify for the services … we’re excited about the future funding potential, and hoping we can do a lot more.”

What’s next: Heuer said next steps include connecting to broadband some outlying farmworkers camps, including Jardines del Valle in Watsonville, and parts of unincorporated Live Oak and San Lorenzo Valley.

“Knowing that farther-flung parts of the county are able to be worked into the plan is really fulfilling — we’ve expanded from the area of greatest need to a greater reception in the county,” he said.

Hackett also said that Cruzio is working with the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz to expand broadband access to all Section 8 housing voucher recipients.