The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the importance of digital connectivity for everyday life and spurred unprecedented state and federal investments in broadband. Last week, PPIC convened three expert panels to discuss how California can leverage recent funding to eliminate the divide between those who have reliable internet and those who do not.
The first panel defined the scope of the problem and the potential impact of new investments. “We have issues nationwide with [digital] access, availability, and affordability,” said Sanford Williams, special advisor and deputy managing director at the FCC. “As with many issues, the communities most affected are the economically disadvantaged, people of color, the elderly, tribal nations, and people with disabilities.” In California, at least 2 million households lack broadband access.
Getting these households connected is not a straightforward task. “The digital divide is multifaceted,” pointed out Amy Tong, secretary of government operations at the California Government Operations Agency. First, there’s the infrastructure needed to bring service to new places. Then, the service has to be affordable. Finally, residents need the digital know-how to use the internet effectively. Christina Snider, tribal affairs secretary in Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, added that engaging locals throughout this multistage process is key but can be especially challenging for communities, like tribal nations, that have historically been neglected. “Tribes need to be driving the conversation … about their unique needs, history, and infrastructure challenges so that the state and feds can tailor resources to meet their needs,” she said.
The second panel discussed ways to reach underserved areas across the state. Investment in broadband has traditionally gone into higher-income, densely populated business areas, said Peggy Dolgenos, president and co-CEO of Cruzio Internet, a service provider in Santa Cruz, while lower-income and rural communities tend to be underserved. Higher infrastructure and maintenance costs make it challenging for private service providers to build in these areas.
In California, Senate Bill 156 (2021) dedicated $6 billion to expand broadband access. This law was a “sea change,” according to Barbara Hayes, chief economic development officer for the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC). It allowed RCRC, which represents 40 counties, to establish its own joint powers authority to finance, construct, and maintain an open-access network that private companies will be able to use to provide service. With this government-owned network, Hayes hopes RCRC can offer connectivity to “the farthest reaches of our counties, covering every single address.”
A major challenge is how to create enduring change when current funding comes with an expiration date. “If we don’t change some of our policies, [the funding] will be short lived,” said Selwyn Hollins, director of the Internal Services Department for Los Angeles County. For example, the federal government subsidizes fiber for schools and libraries. Allowing other providers to use that existing fiber could drastically boost access in underserved communities.
The third panel focused on the role of digital access in ensuring equity. One important step is empowering people to take advantage of the diverse opportunities the internet offers, whether it’s looking for jobs or accessing telehealth. “For health care, affordable connectivity is a lifeline,” said Mei Kwong, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Connected Health Policy. “But there hasn’t been any widespread education for patients in how to use telehealth technology.”
Kristina Ishmael, deputy director at the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, noted that “community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, nonprofits, and libraries” are part of our critical infrastructure when it comes to broadband deployment and education. These organizations play a vital role in helping people “understand the relevance of broadband in their daily lives,” added Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow and director the Brookings Institution’s center for Technology Innovation. After all, digital literacy is not just about learning a certain program or app, she said, but about “using technology to improve quality of life.”
We invite you to the watch the videos from these events: