Broadband Advocate Brings Rural Perspective to California Assembly

As the new Assemblymember from the 4th District, Aguiar-Curry intends to continue her push to close the digital divide.

by Samantha Young, Techwire / February 10, 2017
Image via Techwire

As the mayor of the small town of Winters, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry advocated powerfully for computers in the schools and faster Internet speeds in her rural community.

Students in Winters’ classrooms now have computers and their parents learned how to use tablets — opening a new world for both them and their children.

Aguiar-Curry negotiated with telecommunications companies to enhance broadband access in Winters, a small town of about 7,000 residents in the southwestern corner of Yolo County about halfway between Napa and Sacramento.

As the new Assemblymember from the 4th District, Aguiar-Curry intends to continue her push to close the digital divide. To her, the matter is one of social justice.

“Rich or poor, wherever you live, everybody should have the right to the Internet,” Aguiar-Curry told TechWire in an interview. “It should be part of the infrastructure just like water, electricity and a toilet.”

The sentiment seems like common sense, but the reality has plagued telecommunication companies, rural communities and lawmakers for years. The financial cost alone is daunting, and recent efforts to reauthorize funding for broadband connectivity has stalled in the Legislature.

The state is far from reaching its goal of 98 percent broadband infrastructure access this year. In fact, a report released in April by the California Public Utilities Commission found that only 43 percent of rural households had access to reliable broadband service.

When the Democrat travels her district, she said she often loses cellphone service, and finding a high-speed Internet connection can be challenging — much to the surprise of many of her fellow lawmakers.

“I think their jaws drop — assuming that everybody has it,” she said.

Aguiar-Curry, named in 2014 as a California Emerging Technology Broadband Champion, is working behind the scenes on legislation with other lawmakers to close that digital divide. She said she hopes to introduce a bill that can win the support of the telecommunications sector and the public. Part of her strategy is reaching out to the medical community, including hospitals that want to practice telehealth medicine to reach rural patients.

Key to the bill will be reauthorizing the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which is funded by a ratepayer tax and sunsets in 2020. Created in 2008 to promote the deployment of broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas, the CASF has funded 56 projects benefiting roughly 300,000 people, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

 

The money has also supported consortiums that have helped rural communities access some of the grant dollars. That is something Aguiar-Curry wants to continue.

“There are a lot of small communities that don’t have a technology or IT department and don’t even know how you get Internet for your community,” Aguiar-Curry said. “So these consortiums can help.”

Aguiar-Curry says she knows how technology can energize a community. Her effort to equip students with tablets in the schools did just that in Winters despite initial apprehension.

“It transformed the community. Once we got the tablets to the students, parents and the PTA started believing in the schools again.”

Membership of the Parent Teachers Association grew from 30 parents to 100, and the community backed two school bonds.

At the city level, Aguiar-Curry worked methodically to get technology into her community. She said she expects it will be a long slog in the Legislature, but intends to be patient.

“In every part of my district, everybody has asked for Internet,” Aguiar-Curry said, “I’m not giving up.”

At a Glance

Facts about Aguiar-Curry:

  • First woman mayor of Winters
  • Co-owner of an 80-acre walnut orchard
  • She lives a block from her childhood home
  • Earned a degree in business administration from San Jose State University

This article was originally published on Techwire.