Why is S.F. Chinatown’s internet so bad? ‘It’s racism,’ says the person trying to fix it

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Ho, a 39-year-old banker who grew up attending weekly language classes in Chinatown, thought sending more video documentation to the cloud could help bridge the gulf between authorities and disenchanted locals who felt like their safety concerns weren’t being taken seriously enough.

“It’s not rocket science,” Ho remembered thinking at the time. “Just arm a bunch of storefronts with security cameras. How hard could it be?”

According to the team of technology consultants she hired, very.

Block after block, merchants and residents revealed that, if they had any internet at all, they were relying on ancient dial-up or slow DSL connections. In the tech capital of the world, Chinatown appeared to be an internet dead zone.

Ten months later, Ho’s team managed to install cameras on only one of the historic district’s 30 blocks. The district’s digital divide has ramifications beyond public safety. Ho said she heard from restaurants that were unable to transition to online deliveries during the roving lockdowns, from parents whose children couldn’t log onto remote learning, from residents incapable of scheduling tele-health appointments, and from business owners, residents and others who simply gave up on connecting to the World Wide Web whatsoever.

In a historic district with origins in government-sanctioned isolation, Ho found herself going up against internet giants.

“This is wrong,” she said she thought in early 2021. “So who do we talk to about this?”

‘Exclusion and inequity’

First settled in 1848, Chinatown has always been “ghettoized,” said Justin Hoover, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

“The history of the Chinese in Chinatown is one of exclusion and inequity,” he told The Chronicle.

Joel Hernandez, chief technology officer of IT Jockeys, takes a photograph of a security camera outside Charity Cultural Services Center in Chinatown. The building’s windows were smashed twice in the past year, but its security cameras were not high-quality enough to record the attacks.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

In the mid-1800s, city ordinances limited where Chinese immigrants could live and work while their children were forbidden from attending public schools. During the 1900 bubonic plague, police officers sealed off Chinatown, preventing people from coming or going.

Today, low-income families cram into rooms designed for one person in Chinatown’s numerous single-room occupancy hotels, and there are few parklets or outdoor spaces for recreation, Hoover said. Not being able to access a critical utility like high-speed internet is just the latest hardship.

“We’re each left to fight our own battle to get better internet or get left behind,” said Hoover, whose office is in the the former YWCA building, where single Chinese women found a social outlet from the 1930s to the 1980s.

And yet, the state’s broadband map shows parts of Chinatown to be among the areas most wired for fast internet, performing much better than the neighboring financial district. Points on the map directly contradict what merchants and residents say they experience on a daily basis.

Terrie Prosper, a spokesperson for the California Public Utility Commission, told The Chronicle the broadband map represents the maximum possible speed for the area, not what speed users will sign up for. “Many businesses opt for a lower plan and would get slower speed than the maximum for that reason,” Prosper said.

Ho thinks the technical explanations don’t take into account Chinatown’s history of exclusion.

“It’s racism,” Ho said. “There is literally a (digital) infrastructure line around Chinatown.”

Laura Li, a partner in the Waverly Services and Print shop, points to her computer as it undergoes speed testing in Chinatown. Li pays $150 a month for AT&T internet, which she said was unreliable and slow, a common issue within the historic and dense neighborhood.

Laura Li, a partner in the Waverly Services and Print shop, points to her computer as it undergoes speed testing in Chinatown. Li pays $150 a month for AT&T internet, which she said was unreliable and slow, a common issue within the historic and dense neighborhood.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Ho requested meetings with the area’s major service providers, AT&T and Comcast. Comcast met with community leaders in July 2021 and sent a team to walk the district that September.

The company acknowledged issues with high-speed internet in the neighborhood and challenges to improving it, telling The Chronicle its technicians have been denied access to buildings by owners, and that the community does not want its sidewalks dug up to lay new fiber optic cables.

Ho acknowledged these as legitimate challenges, but said it sounded like Comcast was “blaming the community” instead of finding ways to work with it. She noted that there is no Chinese language option when calling the company.

Joan Hammel, senior director of external communications for Comcast in California, said in an email that her company has “a deep, sincere commitment to finding solutions to serve Chinatown.”

For a district that has been hit hard by the loss of tourism and day-to-day foot traffic, the struggle to connect with the world outside its boundaries has been acute.

Searching for connection

On Feb. 13, The Chronicle accompanied Ho as she checked internet speeds door to door on a block of Clay Street opposite Portsmouth Square. Of the 10 open businesses, the average download speed was 12.85 megabits per second and average upload speed was 0.89 Mbps.

The Federal Communications Commission sets the baseline for adequate broadband coverage at 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

Three businesses had no internet service at all.

The Powell Trading Co. jewelry store registered 0.94 Mbps upload and 9.4 Mbps download, while a bookkeeping office a few doors down had the fastest speeds of the day — 0.78 Mbps upload and 16.2 Mbps download.

Waverly Services and Print shop registered an upload speed of 0.82 Mbps and a download speed of 15.2 Mbps. Laura Li’s store is one of the businesses Ho was hoping to outfit with a security camera. In June 2021, Li said her windows were smashed along with others on the block.

“Everybody started putting (up) cardboard, which makes this place look junky because everything is boarded up,” Li said. “Everybody is scared.”

Communication cables for a security camera outside the Charity Cultural Services Center in Chinatown. The organization seeks to upgrade its security cameras after several incidents of vandalism in the past year, but the neighborhood’s slow internet speeds could hamper that goal.

Communication cables for a security camera outside the Charity Cultural Services Center in Chinatown. The organization seeks to upgrade its security cameras after several incidents of vandalism in the past year, but the neighborhood’s slow internet speeds could hamper that goal.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Chinatown saw 57 reported incidents of “malicious mischief-breaking windows” last year, more than double than either of the previous three years, according to San Francisco Police Department incident data.

Last month, on the same block, Vivian Lo, manager of the Chen Tseng Trading Co., said she arrived at work to find a bullet hole in her front window.

The lack of adequate internet speed has hindered other aspects of daily life in Chinatown. Sam Wo restaurant worker Ms. Ju, who did not give her first name, said her children could not access the internet during the pandemic and fell behind in school.

“The school gave my kids two computers and two hotspots but we could not use the computers because the hotspots did not work,” she said.

Ho does believe Comcast is more serious about fixing the internet issues in Chinatown than its competitor, AT&T, which has not met with community leaders. Of the six merchants with internet service that The Chronicle spoke to on Clay Street, all had AT&T and paid between $65 and $75 per month. Upload speeds were consistently zero and download speeds ranged from 9 Mbps to 16.2 Mbps.

When a reporter visited AT&T’s website and entered an address of a Clay Street business that did not currently have internet service, the only plan offered was “Internet Basic 6” with “Speeds up to 6Mbps” for $60 per month. Ho said such plans are overpriced for the speed offered, and wishes AT&T would do better. “They can’t even say they are trying,” Ho said.

AT&T declined interview requests for this story and referred comment to USTelecom, a broadband industry group.

The group provided The Chronicle with a statement saying there are a variety of reasons internet speed may vary, including “the condition of an individual’s home computer and router; traffic congestion at points outside of the local connection; and multiple devices sharing a Wi-Fi connection.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the district, said the cost of upgrading Chinatown’s older buildings to accommodate faster internet should not fall on the community alone. In October, his office and the city Department of Technology launched a $200,000 pilot project that outfitted five SRO buildings with high-speed internet.

The effort started after Peskin heard from residents at the pandemic’s outset how the lack of reliable internet created new barriers to accessing lifeline services, including getting groceries.

“Our high-speed internet pilot program for SRO residents proved that we can actually bridge the access gap when we invest real dollars in communities where the highest need is, rather than where profit lies,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

A recent internet speed test at one of the newly wired buildings registered a download speed of 31.3 Mbps and an upload speed of 34.1 Mbps — more than enough to run a security camera and provide satisfactory internet to residents, Ho said.

Ashley Cheng found a different way around the slow internet speeds for her nonprofit organization, the Charity Cultural Services Center. She sought out Monkey Brains, an internet service provider that installs antennas on its customers’ roofs to transmit data wirelessly through radio waves from a main tower site connected to a fiber-optic network. The company started in 1998 as a “disruptor” to the lock that the telecommunications giants had on the market, said Carlos Michaud, a company spokesperson.

“We are very far removed from the limitations of having to run a ground cable,” Michaud said. No digging up the sidewalk to lay cables, no opening interior walls in buildings to pass wires through. The company does need the permission of building owners to install antennas on the roofs.

The company provides free internet to many low-income housing complexes in San Francisco, and in return the city allows Monkey Brains to utilize some of their fiber-optic cables in the ground, Michaud said.

Ho believes this could be a viable solution for much of Chinatown. Her ultimate goal is to improve internet access for the whole neighborhood.

“High-speed internet is an essential part of (Chinatown’s) survival,” she said.

San Francisco Chronicle data reporter Susie Neilson contributed to this report.

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