A high-speed fixed wireless internet distribution site (Point of Presence or PoP) on a PVUSD building in Watsonville.

By Peggy Dolgenos and Susan True

An internet service provider, a school district, and a community foundation walked into a zoom room…

What sounds like the beginning of a boring COVID-era joke is actually the true story of an extraordinary cross-sector partnership of industry, philanthropy, and education that has brought internet access to hundreds of families in the Pajaro Valley through Equal Access Santa Cruz County (EASC).

The Problem to Tackle

Among the persistent inequities that became glaringly visible at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of internet access threatened to put students, who already face obstacles to their education, even further behind during distance learning. Although students were equipped with Chromebooks and hotspots, internet connections were spotty and unreliable. Many were missing class sessions, unable to access online homework, and unable to communicate with their teachers.

Double Jeopardy

In order to start bridging the local digital divide, we had to address the core issues—a lack of internet infrastructure in many parts of the County, especially the Pajaro Valley, and families being unable to afford the monthly internet bill.

Problem-solving the technology was fairly uncomplicated for a company like Cruzio. But they needed a philanthropic partner to help raise funds, and act as a place where donors’ gifts could be entrusted and stewarded. With four decades of experience bringing together people, ideas, and resources to tackle the most pressing problems in our community, the Community Foundation was a natural and eager partner.

Cruzio’s high-speed fixed wireless internet distribution sites (Point of Presences or POPs) can be built quickly and at a fraction of the cost of fiber. The Cruzio team installed POPs on PVUSD school buildings, with each site capable of serving 150 or more users. And free or heavily subsidized service was made possible through gifts to the Community Foundation’s EASC fund, bridging the affordability gap.

Luis & Thom from Cruzio install internet infrastructure at Buena Vista Migrant Labor Camp.

The Community Comes Through

When we bring the community together, we get things done. Donations came from groups like the Rotary Club of Watsonville, local companies–including a major grant from Driscoll’s and another from Reiter Affiliated Companies, and many generous individuals. Your donations to EASC have made a meaningful difference in the lives of hundreds of students and families.

Mahia Aguilar, a Aptos Junior High student, told us that thanks to EASC, she didn’t need to go out to the park looking for free internet. A single mom whose child attended the distance learning support program at the Farm Discovery Center (where we connected high speed broadband) told us that she was able to go back to work to help feed her family.

Equal Access Santa Cruz County By the Numbers

This is what your generosity helped accomplish.

Next Steps

The internet is an essential educational tool whether students are in digital classrooms or back on campus. They need it to access assignments, for research, and to stay on top of work during absences, which during this time of COVID are many, as students face exposure and climbing cases.

Phase 1 of Equal Access exceeded our expectations. In the next phase, new internet sites are already planned as we continue our partnership with PVUSD, add coverage in Live Oak, and collaborate with Pajaro Valley Shelter Services. We’re developing a new partnership with Santa Cruz Housing Authority and other affordable housing developers to bring gigabit-speed internet to hundreds more families across the county.

You can help support the work ahead by giving to the EASC Fund. Together, we will close the digital divide in Santa Cruz County.

About the Authors

Peggy Dolgenos is the CEO of Cruzio.

Susan True is the CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County.

More stories about EASC impact:

Good Times: How Equal Access Santa Cruz County is Bridging the Digital Divide

Video: Bridging the Digital Divide