Can California Bring Everyone up to Internet Speed?

Broadband Is a Must for 21st-Century Life, and the Golden State Is Uniquely Poised to Tackle Its Digital Divide

California’s digital divide is most apparent in rural, remote, and tribal areas, writes communications scholar Christopher Ali. But new legislation, funding, and technology have made the state best-situated to tackle the issue. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons ( CC BY-SA 3.0).

Imagine you’re a senior citizen in the midst of the pandemic. You don’t know how to book a vaccine online, so you’ve been on hold for hours. Or imagine you’re a small business owner, eager to expand your business. You invest in a new point-of-sale system to streamline your payments and launch a website to attract customers outside of the state. But it turns out that your town does not have strong enough internet to process a credit card transaction. These scenarios are part of what has come to be known as “digital equity”—a term that captures the issues of high-speed internet (“broadband”) availability, affordability, adoption, hardware, and education.

Affordable, high-quality broadband is not a luxury or a nice-to-have, but a necessity. Broadband access is linked to everything from housing values to economic development, educational gains, telehealth, civic engagement, public safety, and quality of life. This became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government’s recent financial commitment to broadband—defined by the government as speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload—acknowledges this to be true.

A year ago, Congress passed the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which allocated $65 billion for broadband deployment, affordability, and education. California is slated to receive the largest allocations of funds—an estimated $3.5 billion—because the state has a major connectivity disparity: Though over 90% of residents have access to the internet, that percentage drops precipitously in rural, remote, and tribal areas. According to one study, only 76% of rural residents have adopted broadband. Other estimates place the rural broadband gap at upwards of 51.3%.

Fortunately, however, California is also one of the best-situated states to tackle digital inequity.

The Infrastructure Act’s broadband funding is divided into three major parts. First, there’s $42 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which will fund infrastructure development, such as installing fiber optic cables to homes and businesses. Next, the Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes broadband subscriptions for low-income households. Finally, $2.75 billion are allocated for two different digital equity programs, which will fund workforce training, skill development, and digital literacy.

As the largest of the programs, BEAD is getting most of the attention. BEAD guarantees each state $100 million so long as they abide by certain requirements, like submitting a 5-year broadband and digital equity plan. After the $100 million per state, the remaining funds will be distributed according to the number of unserved locations as determined by the Federal Communication Commission’s new national broadband map. California’s estimated $3.5 billion share—which will be matched by nearly $2 billion in industry dollars—will be directed towards the 6% of the state deemed “unserved” or underserved. This will probably include places like Central Valley (20% un- or underconnected) and Los Angeles County (19% un- or underconnected).

There are three aspects of California’s broadband readiness that set an example for other states: the middle-mile, rural partnerships, and “dig once” policies.

Middle-mile connectivity is an often-overlooked element of broadband deployment. Where the “last mile” connects a customer to their Internet Service Provider (ISP), the middle-mile is made up of high-capacity fiber lines that connect a provider to a core hub—often in a larger city—and other network hubs. Without these middle-mile facilitates, ultra-fast broadband to homes is impossible, because the local data has nowhere to go. In California, the lack of a robust middle-mile has been particularly vexing for Native nations. Matt Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, has said, “the hard part is getting off the reservation to get to everybody else.”

In 2021, California passed Senate Bill 156, which provides a staggering $6 billion for broadband deployment, much of it focused on the middle-mile problem. Even better, the 10,000-mile project that the bill supports is open-access, meaning that any provider can use the network. This will substantially reduce costs, especially for remote and Tribal areas, which are often overlooked in deployment planning. Construction of the network began in October 2022 in San Diego County, and the entire network is slated for completion in 2026.

Piggybacking off this unprecedented commitment to middle-mile infrastructure, California has devoted resources to forging partnerships with rural communities. Since 2021, the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) has been working to develop open-access, last-mile municipal networks across the 39 participating counties. In April, 2022 they announced a partnership with Utah-based UTOPIA Fiber to deploy the first round of the project.

The RCRC project is unique in two ways. First, like its middle-mile cousin, it is an open-access network, which will allow multiple ISPs to sit atop it and offer retail broadband. Second, it’s possible that the networks will be placed under local governance, either at the municipal or county level. In communities across the country—from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Ammon, Iowa—local oversight of broadband has proven to be more responsive, accountable, and committed to community concerns and needs.

Finally, California is one of the few states in the nation that has legislation requiring “dig once.” Dig once refers to policies that encourage coordinating construction projects and broadband installation to avoid redundant digging and unnecessary spending. The 2021 Assembly Bill No. 41 requires the California Department of Transportation to ensure that any new highway construction “includes the installation of conduits capable of supporting fiber optic communication.”

Despite these advantages, achieving digital inclusion and equity in California will still be challenging. One challenge is the number of cooks in the broadband kitchen: the Public Utilities Commission, Caltrans, the California Emerging Technology Fund, California Broadband Council, Office of Broadband and Digital Literacy, and California Department of Technology and its newly established deputy director for broadband and digital literacy or “broadband czar” all have a voice in broadband planning in the state.

Another challenge is one faced by numerous agricultural states: mapping broadband to farms. The FCC’s new broadband map omits farm broadband. But in a state that represents 46% of the nation’s fruit and nut production, getting high-speed connectivity to California farms (and knowing where it is already!) is crucial for the future of agriculture.

Despite California’s substantive financial commitment and its innovative “dig once” policies and rural partnerships, it will still be a few years before that remote small business owner or senior citizen sees improvement in their digital lives.

The digital divides of access, affordability, and education will not be solved overnight. But the steps the state has already taken are a good indication that it knows broadband is a must-have for a 21st-century life and is prepared to bring it to all Californians.


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