Reporting

October 11, 2013 by Christopher Nelson

New legislation sets sights on closing the digital divide


(photo credit: David Davies)

California is built on its roads and its bridges, but equally important and less often considered is how critical broadband access is for our economy. Luckily, Governor Jerry Brown signed a couple of significant bills that came across his desk to get more Californians connected and off of pokey, 20th century dial-up Internet access.

In cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, being connected is the norm. Whether you’re a Hollywood agent, a start-up entrepreneur or a state senator, odds are you’re tethered to a smartphone and you probably have multiple computers, tablets, etc to do your digital bidding.

What many of the “connecterati” (you heard it here first) might not realize, however, is that the Internet ubiquity of large cities is not mirrored at all in huge swaths of rural California. In fact, entire towns are still without adequate Internet connection options. And this isn’t just about getting caught up on Breaking Bad on Netflix, this is basic stuff like being able to check email, use a smartphone in your own home, or more importantly, look for a job or register to vote online.

Two recently signed pieces of legislation will work in tandem to bridge this so called “digital divide”. Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 740 (authored by Sen. Alex Padilla - Van Nuys) and AB 1299 (authored by Assemblyman Steven Bradford - Inglewood) into law within the past week, committing $90 million over the next several years to ensure that no less than 98 percent of all households in California have broadband Internet access, specifically targeting rural areas and disadvantaged communities.

“I think people would be shocked at who has adequate Internet and who doesn’t,” said Connie Stewart, Executive Director of the California Center for Rural Policy in Humboldt. “In our region, which is about the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined, I’d estimate that about half the people don’t have adequate Internet connection,” she said.

This interactive map tool will give you an idea of the haves the have-nots. And the have-nots include kids who can’t do their homework until 2 a.m. because of shoddy bandwidth, or dentist’s offices, wineries and other local businesses that aren’t connected to the web, according to Stewart. She even spoke of some areas where 911 only works intermittently because of bad copper wiring. Clearly this is a major infrastructure initiative and not just about getting the entire state on Facebook.

“The future of our economy rests on broadband and other technology infrastructure,” Assemblyman Bradford said. “We cannot let certain unserved and underserved communities fall behind the rest when it comes to this critical resource.”

Sen. Padilla also weighed in on the importance of broadband access as one cornerstone of a future-proof state infrastructure.

“High-speed Internet service is a vital aspect of modern life – everything from communicating with friends and family to access to jobs, education, health care, public safety, government services, and commerce are facilitated by broadband connections,” Padilla said.

SB 740 widens the applicant eligibility for the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which was established via SB 1193 (also authored by Padilla) in 2008 after a study that same year found that some 1.4 million Californians living in rural areas were without broadband access. Now the Public Utilities Commission must give priority to projects that provide “last-mile” broadband access to areas and homes that currently have no access to an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

And while SB 740 is larger in scope and aims to expand broadband access into the farthest corners of the state, AB 1299 specifically targets low-income rural and urban public housing, with $25 million in earmarked funding to deliver broadband access and offer digital literacy training.

"The success of this legislation shows that California leaders fully understand more work is needed to finally close the digital divide in California, a necessity if we are to remain economically competitive and give every resident access to the tools required to succeed in the digital age,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund.  

“Now, we will have an additional $90 million for broadband deployment in rural and urban neighborhoods, and to connect the state’s public housing communities, bringing affordable, reliable Internet to those who can benefit most.”

Broadband is quickly becoming a right and not a privilege in this increasingly connected world. Having over a million people in the state that gave us Google and the iPhone still enduring the bleepy dial-up noises that only haunt most city-dwellers' dreams is unacceptable. As more and more activities vital to maintaining a vibrant economy and democracy move into cyberspace, these two pieces of legislation mark an important step to a day when no Californian will be left it digital darkness.

Categories: Infrastructure

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