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Closing the digital divide in South San Francisco is a central focus of officials looking for projects to fund with roughly $714,000 in coronavirus relief money.

The South San Francisco City Council’s subcommittee dedicated to addressing community block grant funding addressed a variety of programs designed to improve the quality of life for residents struggling amid the pandemic.

While a variety of initiatives were examined by the subcommittee comprised of Councilwoman Flor Nicolas and Councilman James Coleman, the general consensus was that improving access to the internet should be a top priority.

South San Francisco received $574,000 in federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act which is earmarked to help those facing hardships due to the pandemic. Of that sum, officials favored spending about $340,000 to broaden internet access for South San Francisco residents.

With a county survey showing that nearly 300 households in the city’s poorest neighborhoods do not have the technology needed to log onto the internet, subcommittee members showed interest in purchasing laptops and WiFi hot spots that can be given to those families.

Nicolas said she would like enough equipment purchased for each of the families that need one, but officials noted that traditionally the city has struggled to connect with all the families that could use government assistance.

“I think what we have found is that there is that natural attrition. When people realize there is a program, you get that flood of applicants … and then getting those folks to break down their barriers and trust us enough later — it is going to trickle off,” said Nell Selander, deputy director for the city’s Economic and Community Development Department.

Noting there is a barrier to entry for accessing programs which require applicants to share sensitive information such as household income levels, Selander said it is challenging for government to address all the need that exists.

No decision was made at the meeting, and the issue will be addressed again in January.

Officials also noted that the South San Francisco Unified School District has worked to assure families in the school community have computers and hot spots. The city’s similar program could be used to help those seeking employment get the equipment they need to find a job online, officials said.

Beyond the computers and hot spots, officials also expressed interest in expanding WiFi networks at parks in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

Nicolas favored focusing the program at the Cypress and Pine playground, but Assistant City Manager Sharon Ranals suggested its establishment at the Paradise Valley Park because there is a remote learning hub established there helping students with online education. She said there is WiFi access inside the building where the hub is housed, but wondered if it could be expanded to the surrounding parking lots for those who need to access the internet from their cars.

Beyond the CARES Act funding, officials also favored spending about $140,000 in other entitlements toward launching a free WiFi network along Linden Avenue. And looking ahead, they also expressed interest in building a fiber-optic cable network throughout the city but agreed a later round of financing might be needed to address the program.

For his part, City Manager Mike Futrell said officials can address the immediate need through providing hot spots and computers while looking at the city’s infrastructure as a long-term initiative.

Outside of the digital divide initiatives, officials also discussed spending $65,000 on public services such as meals for needy families or small business assistance; $54,000 for public health improvement projects such as temperature check stations at city facilities or other upgrades; plus other funding for medical supplies and alternative programs.

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