As phone companies tout the switch to 5G, these San Diego residents still lack reliable cell service
Monday, March 7, 2022
Guadalupe Olivo has tried to call her doctor for an appointment, but she can’t get through. “Cellular network is unavailable,” it reads on her phone when she tries to dial the number again.
Since his car accident last year, Olivo wakes up feeling dizzy, but it’s his cell service that’s really pissing him off.
“I can’t know when the appointment is, whether it’s the 22nd or the 23rd, because the call doesn’t go through,” Olivo said in Spanish. Even when her service is working, there’s no guarantee that the person on the phone can speak Spanish, the only language she speaks.
Olivo lives in San Ysidro, a San Diego neighborhood adjacent to one of the world’s busiest border crossings and nestled in one of North America’s largest metropolitan areas. And yet, wireless networks, which are responsible for cellular signals and data, are spotty here. For residents like Olivo who live in the park of manufactured homes behind Motel 6, this poor cell service has become a daily reminder of the digital divide, that is, the disparities in access to technology in San Diego and much of the United States.
Wendy Aguayo is one of Olivo’s neighbors. She lives in a trailer nearby with her husband and two children aged 11 and 18. She is friendly and smiling, even when multitasking. While caring for her children, she is active in her neighborhood, participating in a National Institutes of Health-funded study on the fairness of COVID-19 testing and training to become a teacher on issues related to domestic violence. In both cases, classes and workshops are online, often via Zoom, so she sets up a hotspot using her smartphone because the home park does not support wired internet like the ‘ADSL or fiber.
This means that when the cellular signal fails, its courses end abruptly. Lately it happens once or twice a week.
Across the park from the house is the local primary school, which serves 772 students, including Aguayo’s son. Over 95% of students are Hispanic. “The internet isn’t the best here, but we’re getting by,” said Todd Lewis, director of education technology for the San Ysidro School District. As for the cellular network, it “depends on where I am,” he said. Once in December last year, the YMCA after-school program held at the elementary school was unable to take attendance for students because attendance and exit sheets require an internet connection.
As wireless communication becomes increasingly essential, poor cellular signals can have disastrous consequences. But as the technology becomes more complex, such as with the transition to 5G, solving the problem is increasingly difficult. “There are half a dozen variables,” Benton senior adviser Andrew Jay Schwartzman said. Sometimes cell tower engineers simply make a mistake and accidentally broadcast a weaker signal than needed. Lower cell signals and slow data can be a result of geography, like living in a valley when the cell tower is on a hill. It can also come from the proximity of certain buildings that are less permeable to electromagnetic waves, or can come from a cheap phone that is not as sensitive to modern wireless signals. The final problem, cheap phones, hits low-income customers particularly hard.
These issues can exist anywhere in the United States, but proximity to the US-Mexico border adds another set of complicating factors for residents of San Ysidro. “Cross-border spectrum interference issues have been with us forever,” Schwartzman said. Mexican radio and television stations blend into American networks and vice versa, often without much complaint. But the growing reliance on cellular devices, especially for communities without wired internet during the COVID-19 pandemic, is upping the ante.
In August 2019, a Mexican company, Altán Redes, began testing new cellular networks for communities in northern Mexico. These Mexican signals interfered with US cellular networks, leading to hospitals and first responders on the US side of the border experiencing widespread outages. For months, San Diego firefighters struggled to make or receive emergency calls. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on behalf of the thousands of affected Texans, ultimately leading the State Department to intervene. The San Diego Fire Department hasn’t seen such problems since January 2020, and San Ysidro City Council member Vivan Moreno hasn’t heard any recent complaints from voters either. FCC Chairman Roserworcel acknowledged last year that the government was still investigating the issue, but did not respond when asked if the issue could still affect residents like Olivo and Aguayo.
Meanwhile, the City of San Diego is proposing to double its investment in digital equity this year and is already offering digital literacy classes along border areas. They have also built “WiFi transmission centers” in San Ysidro, said Gerardo Ramirez, the community representative for council member Moreno.
Aguayo is skeptical, however. The city’s public Wi-Fi map shows fewer resources for border communities. “I was at a community meeting, and they were talking about free internet in San Diego or something, but there’s nothing,” she said as she sat down next to a playground. playground a few blocks from her home, watching her 11-year-old son race as the sunset colors the clouds pink. She recently switched from Metro by T-Mobile to Cricket Wireless, and the service is better, though far from where she needs it.
The San Ysidro School District distributed hotspots to families who did not have a strong internet connection at home. However, these hotspots depend on a cellular signal. In-person classes have resumed, but assignments remain online. When the hotspots invariably fail, Aguayo takes his youngest son to a neighbor’s house so he can finish his schoolwork. Her eldest son is finishing his homework from Southwestern Community College at the local library.
Olivo also sought its own solutions. She recently bought a second phone, hoping the problem was her phone and not the signal. But now she struggles to navigate the new screen’s improved buttons and colors. Until then, her new phone serves as a paperweight most of the time.
Benton Fellow Adam Echelman is a longtime digital equity writer and practitioner. He is the former executive director of Libraries Without Borders US and the founder of the Digital Equity Coalition of Baltimore.