STOCKTON — Remember the ‘90s? You wished your dad was like Bill Cosby. Even Ross and Rachel never paid $4 for a cup of coffee. And when you logged onto the internet, your computer made a sound like, “Brrrrrrrr, bing, bing, bing, GADONG, GADONG, GADONG.” It was so slow you had time to make a sandwich before you could check your email.
For 1,935 households in Stockton, it’s still the ‘90s as far as technology goes. That’s how many households in the city still have dial-up internet, about 2.1 percent.
In fact, of the largest 100 cities in the United States, Stockton has the highest percentage of dial-up internet households, according to 2014 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
But Stockton is not alone. According to Slate.com, 2.2 million Americans were still AOL dial-up subscribers in 2015.
Why would anyone still cling to such an outdated service? Many people don’t have a choice. According to a study by the Federal Communications Commission, in 2015, 55 million people in the United States lacked access to high-speed internet, defined as 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload.
The problem is especially acute in rural areas, where the FCC said 53 percent of households lack access to high-speed internet service — often because the infrastructure isn’t in place.
That finding is supported by research from the California Emerging Technology Fund and the Field poll. According to a survey they released this summer, 16 percent of people in the state don’t have any internet service at home, and most of those people live in rural areas.
If you look at the map on page 27, you’ll see the areas marked in red are labeled as “unserved.” Most of those areas are in rural parts of the Stockton region.
Lack of affordability
But even when broadband service is available, many people don’t use it because they can’t, or think they can’t, afford it.
“Those in low-income, non-English speaking households or communities are the last to adopt because it becomes an economic proposition for them,” said Gladys Palpallatoc, associate vice president for the CETF.
That Field poll conducted with the CETF found that just 69 percent of California’s Spanish-speaking Latinos have broadband internet at home, and only 39 percent connect to the Internet through a home computing device. Many people, especially those who are younger, rely on smartphones.
Income is an issue as well. Among Californians who have incomes less than $22,000, only 43 percent can access the Internet at home through a computing device.
Having no or slow internet service at home can hold people back in ways they may not realize. They can’t bank online. They can’t apply for jobs or access services. Their children can’t do research online or get help with homework.
Shelby Gonzales works at the Office of Community and Economic Development at Fresno State University. That office distributes grants to local organizations that help low-income and non-English-speaking people sign up for broadband access. Since July 2013, her office has served 1,273 people.
“Often they have a perception they can’t afford it; they don’t recognize the need for it,” Gonzales said.
One way her office reaches parents in homes that lack digital access is by partnering with schools that send devices home with students.
“We provide digital literacy courses for the parents so that they understand, No. 1, what their children have and then showing them that mechanism, how it’s important to them, too,” Gonzales said.
The digital literacy classes take 18 sessions and start with the most basic steps of turning on a computer. Gonzales says that by the end, parents have a sense of empowerment and find uses for the internet they hadn’t realized existed.
“We get that ‘aha’ moment constantly,” Gonzales said. “We teach them how to Skype because a lot them have family in Mexico that they want to keep track of.”
In the past three years, workers have also helped 2,343 families sign up with Internet Service Providers.
Gonzales’ office used to partner with the Great Valley Center to help families with internet access in the Stockton and Modesto area. However, that partnership ended last year.
The California Emerging Technology Fund is also working to increase accessibility throughout California. According to that Field poll released this summer, 21 percent of people said they didn’t use the internet at home because it wasn’t available where they live.
Currently, broadband infrastructure is in place for 84 percent of California’s population. That’s up from just 55 percent eight years ago.
The California Public Utilities Commission has a goal to provide broadband infrastructure to 98 percent of the state by next year. However, CETF’s CEO Sunne McPeak says the Legislature needs to pass legislation, including the Internet for All Now Act, to make sure the goal is reached.
Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Frontier and Mobile Citizen all have affordable options for low-income households. Charter is unveiling a similar program soon.
Beginning in December, the FCC will provide a $9.25 monthly subsidy to internet companies to help them serve low-income customers.