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Equal Access Santa Cruz County

Fundraising Campaign Brings Community Together to Close the Equity Gap

 

Independent ISP Cruzio Internet has been addressing the need for essential digital infrastructure in the Santa Cruz community since its launch in 1989, and the pandemic has increased the urgency around connectivity needs, said James Hackett, Director of Business Operations for Cruzio Internet. “First COVID, and now the fires, have really shone a light on the problem.” 

Since March, Cruzio has worked with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) and the Pajaro Valley School District (PVUSD) to ensure no students get left behind: Cruzio created a plan that offers three months of free high-speed broadband service and WiFi hardware, followed by a deeply discounted subscription for income-qualified families. Hundreds of households immediately signed up, and demand continues to grow.

The challenge, said Hackett, is that as a for-profit business committed to employing and paying its employees through the pandemic while also expanding and investing service to the community, there’s a limit to how much the company can support without endangering its bottom line. Residential demand has increased while business demand has decreased, which means that revenues have dropped even as the company serves more customers.

Across the county, almost 16,000 households don’t have adequate access to internet service, said Hackett, and building the infrastructure to change that is neither quick nor cheap. For now, Cruzio has found a smart way to serve parts of the community where broadband service isn’t yet available: The company created “internet drive-ins,” utilizing schools and parking lots where people could access high-speed WiFi from their cars.

Between the number of households relying on subsidized plans and those whom infrastructure has yet to reach, the needs are greater than anyone would have envisioned. 

“We realized, as we started to connect these families, that more funding would be needed, and more resources would be needed,” said Hackett. “We just couldn’t connect them fast enough.”

Determined to fill those needs and inspired by the many offers of support it’s received from partners, vendors, local organizations and individuals, Cruzio is embracing a community approach. This week, Cruzio and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County are launching the Equal Access Santa Cruz County fund, which is designed to bridge the digital divide and ensure that low-income families, students, teachers and their families have fast, affordable and dependable internet. The fund will be used to support the Cruzio Home Internet Access Program, which serves households that might otherwise not be able to afford service, as well as building new broadband infrastructure, particularly in low-income areas where adequate internet is simply not available. The goal is to install five new sites, which will serve up to 500 families in the first year of the project.

More than $55,000 has already been donated toward the first-year goal of $250,000. That’s an achievable target, said Hackett, that can make a significant difference.  Cruzio is also reaching out to existing customers to help pay it forward, so that, someday soon, kids won’t need to do their homework in parking lots. “A picture tells a thousand words, and that really inspired people to fix what needs to be fixed,” said Hackett. “Here’s a legitimate way that you can actually make a difference.”  

Contribute to the Equal Access Santa Cruz County Fund at the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County website.