Years ago, Gonzales, Calif., couldn't get a good broadband deal for its residents. After aggressively taking initiative in a variety of ways, the city can now connect any household to high-speed Internet.
For many Americans during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, gaining access to high-speed Internet hinged on the temporary charity of private service providers, or perhaps required a family to drive to a more connected area. But in Gonzales, Calif., a city of about 9,000 people, getting broadband was as simple as going to a drive-thru, confirming one’s address and heading to a second location to pick up equipment for a permanent at-home hot spot.
Gonzales had just started to deploy this tech when COVID-19 put the United States into a centrifuge, but the city’s effort to give residents better broadband access started more than a decade ago.
“Our goal has always been to get every household wired,” said City Manager René Mendez, who admitted the wireless option is not as robust in terms of performance. Mendez, however, sees a lesson here for other local areas: It’s ok to change a plan as long as there is a good reason.
For Gonzales, part of the reason comes down to affordability.
“We do have low-income agricultural workers here,” said Carmen Gil, community engagement and strategic partnerships director. “Sometimes they have to decide what they can afford… a lot of times it’s food and housing over something like Internet.”
Households in Gonzales don’t pay any monthly charge for the hot spots. As part of a partnership with T-Mobile, Gonzales pays $12.50 a month for each hot spot, and the money comes from the city’s general fund. If all 2,000 households in the city received a connection through this initiative, the annual cost would be $300,000. Thus far, 1,300 households have picked up a hot spot, which enables speeds that surpass the federal minimum of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps as part of the T-Mobile agreement, Mendez said.
But how did Gonzales strike the deal with T-Mobile? Mendez said it was a matter of looking at what was possible for the community and leveraging what was already there. T-Mobile has an existing program called EmpowerED, which helps schools provide digital education to children. Gonzales essentially convinced T-Mobile, which wanted to show that it was working with communities, to adapt the program for the municipality.
“I simply asked them, can this program be used for cities?” Mendez said.
Of course, the hot spots in Gonzales wouldn’t translate to broadband-level speeds if not for surrounding infrastructure. T-Mobile already had towers in the area, and Gonzales successfully negotiated for upgrades to the structures.
While every city may not have the same potential resources in place, Mendez said cities should focus less on what they don’t have and more on what they do have. If a local school isn’t part of a program, perhaps a local library is, and maybe that can be translated to an opportunity. Above all, a city must be flexible to make the technological solution work.
“This stuff changes so quickly that I think in government we have to be able to maneuver and change,” Mendez said. “Some of these things don’t lend themselves to a normal, typical governmental approach.”
Gonzales officials feel that proactiveness is a must if the goal is to give every resident a chance to get connected. Conversations need to happen in the community and should expand to external associations and regulatory bodies. As a case in point, Gonzales became a member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium in California and regularly argued for its interests at the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.
Mendez also recommends developing a really "clear policy statement that you can put in front of people” and taking the time to read through anything that could possibly lead the community to engagement and success.
“We get tons of proceeding hearings — cities just get blasted with them every time something’s happening,” Mendez said. “If you spend the time opening some of these documents, you’re able sometimes to find opportunities.”
Both Mendez and Gil cited the importance of Gonzales’ focus on youth outreach. As noted in a 2019 editorial from The Californian, “Gonzales employs the city’s own children as part-time workers or interns in its programs.” The city’s quest for universal broadband specifically benefited from the leadership and voice of 17-year-old Isabel Mendoza, who serves as a commissioner on the Gonzales Youth Council. Gil said Mendoza was part of the communications with T-Mobile.
“You put a face to the problem, you make it real,” Mendez said.
Gil said that communities can be in a better spot if leaders try to address needs such as broadband before they’re forced to act.
“I think what gave us the edge during this whole pandemic was the fact that we weren’t doing this as a response to the pandemic,” Gil said. “We were doing it before because the need was here. We had an edge on ensuring that our local students could continue their online learning. In a way, that is the way to go.”