Edgar Martinez’s choice is obvious when deciding between paying for his rent or paying his Internet bill.
“Rent’s more important,” says Martinez, 31, a restaurant cook. When his home Internet service is shut off, he walks one block to Art Electronics Sale and Repair on First Street in Boyle Heights, and pays $1.25 an hour to use the computers to play video games, surf the net or apply for jobs.
While Internet use has become essential for many people, home access is still a luxury for many residents in Boyle Heights.
That could change with the help of a new federal effort to close the digital divide for communities across the nation. In February, the Federal Communications Commission implemented new rules that allow cities to offer low-cost municipal broadband service. The most recent effort has been a May proposal by the FCC to expand the Lifeline program that would subsidize low-income residents’ access to broadband Internet.
In Los Angeles, a $5 billion initiative spearheaded by Mayor Eric Garcetti, along with Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, would take advantage of the new rules and provide basic and high speed broadband service and wireless access to all residents and businesses in the city at affordable or even free rates. For communities likes Boyle Heights, this new program could open doors, giving residents a low-cost way to connect with online opportunities to apply for jobs and college, bank, shop or do research.
“This is a tool that we need in our everyday lives. It’s a necessity, so we have to make sure that we are providing it for everybody,” says Stephanie Chen, an energy and telecommunications policy director for the Greenlighting Industry, a group that addresses economic inequalities in minority communities.
Rent or Internet?
In a community where the median annual household income is $33,325, paying for a home Internet subscription costing from $15 to $90 monthly is not a priority for everyone. According to a national 2010 survey of 5,005 people by the Federal Communications Commission, only 52 percent of those who made under $50,000 paid for broadband access at home.
Arturo Osorio, owner of Art Electronic Sale and Repair, has been providing access to computers and the Internet in Boyle Heights for 16 years. Even as Internet cafes have all but disappeared nationwide, this one still thrives in Boyle Heights, where it meets a high demand.
“When I opened this business, people would ask me ‘Why in East L.A., Boyle Heights? People don’t know computers there.’ OK, that’s the reason. I’m bringing technology. A lot of kids who come here now have access.”
Closing the digital divide
The White House sees community broadband projects as one of the most promising ways to address uneven access throughout the nation. In January, President Barack Obama introduced the Broadband USA initiative. It aims to help communities build their own Internet networks by providing workshops that guide them through financing, constructing and planning. In the past, states blocked cities from creating municipal broadband infrastructure and offering municipal services at lower rates.
CityLinkLA, the L.A. initiative, is designed to be a public-private partnership rather than a city-built network. While the project leaders are still gathering information from industry leaders, city officials expect the City Council to vote on the initiative early next year. If approved, some communities will begin service late next year, officials say. The citywide project is expected to be completed in five years.
Meanwhile, those who can’t afford quality Internet access at home have found alternatives to stay connected. Smartphones and cell phones that perform similar functions to computers have gradually become a main resource for many people. Latinos are the largest ethnic population of smartphone users, with 72 percent nationwide owning one, according to a 2014 report by Nielsen Holdings N.V.
Locally, residents pay $45-$60 monthly to get a phone with text service and Internet access, according to local service providers.
But these devices cannot provide the same Internet experience that computers do. So for now, neighborhood haunts with free or cheap Internet continue to thrive.
“Many people have learned about technology here, and that opens the doors for jobs,” says Osorio about the Internet and computer rental services his business provides. “We help them create an email account, a Facebook account, because they also want to learn how to use computers and learn technology.”
Internet Access in the Community
Libraries: Library cardholders can reserve computers for designated periods at any local public library. When libraries are closed, people often sit outside and login to use the library’s Wi-Fi access.
Benjamin Franklin Library
2200 E. First St.
Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library
803 Spence St.
2801 Wabash Ave.
Coffee shops: Among the best options for free Wi-Fi are coffee shops. Primera Taza Coffee House, La Monarca Bakery and Starbucks all offer free Wi-Fi to their customers.
Primera Taza Coffee House is a small but warm location serving breakfast sandwiches, teas and coffees. It is generally quiet and is frequented by local artists and community locals. A small cup of regular coffee costs $2, and a breakfast sandwich is $3.25.
Primera Taza Coffee
1850 ½ E. First Street
Mon-Fri: 7:30 a.m. 6 p.m.
Sat: 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
Sun: 8:30 a.m.- 1:30 p.m.
La Monarca Bakery recently opened its seventh location across the street from Mariachi Plaza. The franchise quickly gained a large clientele, so if you want to score a table, get there early in the morning. Specialty coffees range in price, but a regular cup costs $1.85-$2.35, with two free refills, and 50 cents for a third serving. Pan dulce starts at 35 cents a piece.
La Monarca Bakery
101 N. Boyle Ave.
Mon-Thu: 6 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Fri: 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sat-Sun: 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
Starbucks has two locations in Boyle Heights, serving up sweets and the popular frappuccino. No password is needed for the Wi-Fi.
2675 E. Olympic Blvd.
Mon-Fri: 4:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sat-Sun: 5 a.m.-11 p.m.
Starbucks – Health Science Campus – USC
1969 Zonal Ave.
Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Laundromats: Wi-Fi is offered in some laundromats in Boyle Heights. Customers can now multitask, washing a week’s laundry while watching their favorite shows online. Managers will only hand over Wi-Fi passwords to customers. Wi-Fi can often be spotty or unavailable at times.
Wishy Wash Laundry
2833 E 1st St
Daily: 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Lavanderia Coin Op Laundry
2230 E. First St
Daily: 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
Computer Repair Shops: Several computer repair shops in Boyle Heights provide repair services, as well as the use of computers, Internet and printers. Rates vary by store; at Art Electronics Sale and Repair, Wi-Fi costs $1.50 per hour.
Art Electronics Sale and Repair
2500 E. First Street
Mon-Sun: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
3112 E. 4th St
Restaurants: While places like McDonald’s advertise their free Wi-Fi access, some are more secretive. Next time you’re at your favorite eatery, ask, and they may share their Wi-Fi password with you.