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San Rafael Rushes to Provide Poor Neighborhood Free WiFi

SAN RAFAEL (CBS SF) San Rafael is rushing to close the digital divide by installing a Wi-Fi network in its Canal District in time for the start of school.  

The Canal district is a low income area with about 2,000, mostly Latinx school children that has suffered from substandard infrastructure for years. We live in a digital age, but for many living in the Canal District of San Rafael, they're living in a digital black hole, and nowhere more so than in the new world of remote learning.

"Covid exacerbated the educational divide, because immediately schools went to online learning and online learning not only broadband but enough broadband," Marin County's Chief Assistant Director Javier Trujillo said.

The lack of connectivity has long been a problem in the majority LatinX neighborhood, but now, it means the difference between whether or not a child can go to school. So an alliance of city and county government as well as private companies and nonprofits like the Canal Alliance is building a wifi mesh network for the neighborhood. 

"Your children are your top priority. We have so many dedicated parents that just want to see their children succeed," Air Gallegos, Canal Alliance's educational director, said, "And to not be able to have the resources around you to make that happen is extremely hard." 

More than 2,000 school children are expected to be able to access the network, proponents say. Other residents will be able to access the network for services such as unemployment, rental assistance and information on the latest health orders.

The movement comes after the county conducted a survey that found almost half of the people in the Canal District didn't have internet connections fast enough to watch video without buffering, or taking 10 or more seconds to load. Almost 60 percent in the neighborhood are without a computer at all. 

Those are major roadblocks. 

"It is one of those fundamental elements that has to be in place for everything else to work well,"  Trujillo said.

For a population of people who are mostly essential workers, the Canal Alliance and the county say, they deserve better. 

"Knowledge is power," Gallegos says, "especially during this epidemic, so it's really important for people to realize we are all interconnected and that health of your neighbors, the education of your neighbors, that matters."

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