San Mateo County is moving forward with three programs targeted at improving internet connectivity for South Coast residents. With students learning from home and community members working online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are struggling to stay connected.

San Mateo County Chief Information Officer Jon Walton is helping lead the three programs: expanding county public Wi-Fi through partnerships on the South Coast, establishing hotspots and mobile Wi-Fi units for remote learners in the school district, and pursuing a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for broadband where cell coverage is nonexistent.

Walton said expanding internet access on the South Coast is a necessity, especially as more government and community resources are moving online.

“When I talk about public internet access, I think about public access to public roads,” Walton said. “It eliminates isolation. … It's a basic public need.”

Each week, Walton’s county team and partners, including representatives from Puente de la Costa Sur and the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District, meet to plan and discuss project developments.

Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera said she is grateful to see real progress toward connecting the South Coast, which she said had previously felt “unattainable.” Mancera sits in on the county meetings each week to provide insights and to make connections to key partners. She said there are many challenges to implementing each program — from the lack of consistent cell coverage to the coming rainy season, which will be a barrier to outdoor access.

“There is not one recipe for the entire South Coast area,” Mancera said. “The county acknowledges the challenges and are trying their best to tailor to different communities. It is incredible that it is actually happening.”

For Mancera, the impacts of reliable internet coverage will be widespread. As Puente’s programs have moved online, so too has its community, and she and her staff are reevaluating programs to no longer require in-person visits for certain processes. Online appointments can save time and resources, and each new community meeting has been bigger than the last.

“Every time, there are more people joining, especially within the Latinx population,” Mancera said.

County and community support has been critical to getting students online, LHPUSD Superintendent Amy Wooliever said. Over the summer, the team distributed hotspots to ranches and families who have access to cell coverage but no Wi-Fi. She is particularly enthusiastic about the mobile Wi-Fi hub coming to Pescadero High School that will provide 24-hour internet access for students and community members alike, outside the building.

For any students who were still missing access, the county, school district and Puente partnered to get remote learning centers running, even providing transportation for those who need it.

“It really is different than at a large school because we are solving problems one student at a time,” Wooliever said.

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