When Steve Jobs, Appleâ€™s chief executive, stood before the Cupertino City Council earlier this month to pitch his plans for building an enormous spaceship-shaped corporate headquarters, Councilwoman Kris Wang smiled wide and asked, â€œDo we get free Wi-Fi or something like that?â€
Mr. Jobs brushed off the remark with a joke, but when asked again, he said, abruptly, â€œI think we bring a lot more than free Wi-Fi.â€
Perhaps Mr. Jobs should not have been so dismissive.
Though it rarely makes headlines these days, the digital divide â€” the gap between the computer haves and have-nots â€” remains reality for thousands in the Bay Area, a remarkable situation considering this is home to Google, Apple, Facebook and many other titans of technology.
An estimated one in five adults in California do not use the Internet, and 30 percent do not have broadband access at home â€” about the same as the national average. Those left behind are increasingly isolated and disadvantaged as more of lifeâ€™s basic information, like vital community news or transit schedules or job listings, has moved online.
The divide is most severe in Californiaâ€™s Latino community, where 35 percent of adults do not use the Internet at all, and only 50 percent have broadband access at home. Other groups fare better, according to a 2010 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group: whites (90 percent use the Internet, 82 percent have broadband access at home), Asians (87 percent Internet, 77 percent broadband) and blacks (82 percent Internet, 70 percent broadband).
Grandiose plans announced by some cities (like San Francisco in 2004) to help close the gap with citywide free wireless Internet access have mostly fizzled due to political disputes and financing.
But where governments have failed, others have stepped in.
MonkeyBrains.net is a small Internet service provider in the Mission district with funky offices that are a cramped imaginarium of spare parts and artwork. But unlike Apple, the company has made universal Internet access one of its core tenets, at its own expense.
Rudy Rucker, a MonkeyBrains.net co-founder, excitedly showed off electric-toothbrush-sized antennas the company has placed throughout the city, adjacent to paying customersâ€™ equipment, providing free Wi-Fi to all in range
â€œThis is the digital divide device,â€ Mr. Rucker said.
â€œItâ€™s our social contract,â€ he added, explaining why the company donates its resources. â€œIf you want to do anything, you need to be online.â€
Ada Fuentes, 28, who immigrated to San Francisco from Honduras six years ago, recently entered the digital age thanks to Caminos, a nonprofit organization in the Mission that teaches computer skills to low-income Latina immigrants.
In the past 18 months Ms. Fuentes has learned Web browsing, word processing and spreadsheets â€” skills she used to start a fledgling company selling cleaning products online.
â€œIâ€™ve been getting more and more business,â€ she said in Spanish, also marveling at how Skype has enabled her to video chat with relatives in New York and Los Angeles.
But Ms. Fuentes said her learning was initially stymied because her only online access was at public libraries, where demand for computers was so great that she was limited to 30 minutes a visit. She has since bought a laptop and set up a wireless Internet connection in her home.
Graciela TiscareÃ±o-Sato, a former telecommunications executive and author of the new book â€œLatinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them,â€ said people like Ms. Fuentes are becoming increasingly common as Latinos see the value of connecting to the digital world.
â€œThey see that without communication a lot of nothing happens, but with it anything is possible,â€ Ms. TiscareÃ±o-Sato said.
She said there had been a recent increase in â€œleapfroggingâ€ among Latinos â€” accessing the Internet via smartphones, which cost less than computers and Wi-Fi.
Lydia ChÃ¡vez, managing editor of Mission Loc@l, a news organization associated with the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism that provides daily online news coverage of the Mission, said of the digital divide, â€œYou canâ€™t report in this community and not be aware of it.â€
Ms. ChÃ¡vez said at a recent neighborhood event for sixth to eighth graders, â€œ30 percent didnâ€™t have e-mail addresses.â€ Nationally, 93 percent of teenagers are online.
She said the digital void is even more profound among older Latinos who are uncomfortable with computers. As a result, Mission Loc@l is using a well-tested method to reach those offline: print. The most recent printing of 10,000 bilingual newspapers hit the streets last week.
â€œSome Latinos think weâ€™re only a print edition,â€ Ms. ChÃ¡vez said.
Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco. [email protected]