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Who Gets Priority as California Spends $600M on Broadband?

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Tuesday to spend $6 billion over the next three years expanding broadband access throughout the state, prioritizing unserved, underserved and rural communities.

(TNS) — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Tuesday to spend $6 billion over the next three years expanding broadband access throughout the state, prioritizing unserved, underserved and rural communities.

Much of the money will fund increased connectivity for rural communities with little to no network access and public spaces like schools and libraries with less access to high-bandwidth internet.

Newsom signed the broadband bill into law surrounded by students at Traver Joint Elementary School in Tulare County.

“The issue of access and equity — those are the two words that bring us here today,” Newsom said. “The spirit is that next generation that will be the beneficiaries of this historic, landmark investment.”

The bill passed with bipartisan support in the Assembly and Senate, with many legislators emphasizing how COVID-19 lockdowns revealed vast disparities in internet access throughout the state.

“This pandemic has shown that the digital divide is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of the 21st century,” said Assembly member Al Murasutchi, D-Torrance, in the Assembly floor session. “If you don’t have affordable, reliable internet access, you can’t get into the classroom. If you don’t have reliable internet service, you can’t telecommute and get into the workplace. For those who don’t have internet service, they can’t see their healthcare providers.”

The law establishes a deputy director of broadband, broadband advisory council and office of broadband and digital literacy at the California Department of Technology. The deputy director for broadband will be appointed by the governor and act as the point of contact for Caltrans, the Legislature, the commission and the third-party administrator.

More half of the money, $3.25 billion, is intended go toward increasing middle-mile infrastructure, which links major internet providers to a local access point like schools and hospitals. Building this middle mile will bring internet services to rural areas and create competition in urban communities that will lower prices.

The middle-mile construction will prioritize areas without sufficient high-bandwidth connectivity, such as elementary and secondary schools, higher education, healthcare institutions, libraries and tribal lands.

In fall 2020, more than a quarter of K-12 students and nearly 40% of low-income students did not have reliable internet access, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, described the state of broadband access in his district at the Assembly floor session Thursday.

“We have kids and adults who go and sit in parking lots at a library to get Wi-Fi access to fill out a job application or an application for college,” Wood said.

Another $2 billion will be used for last-mile projects to connect underserved households to high-speed internet. At least $1 billion of this allocation must be spent in rural counties.

Rural areas in California have the lowest access to broadband, as shown by the 2019 American Community Survey, with the exception of rural wealthy regions in Sonoma and Marin counties.

“This is sorely needed. We have wasted decades with the status quo,” Senator Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, said at the Senate floor session. “We cannot leave any child, any senior, any family behind.”

Although the bill passed unanimously, Assembly legislators brought up several concerns such as continued funding for operation and maintenance.

“Every year wildfires burn miles and miles of fiber optic cable ... that have to be replaced at significant expense,” said Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, who nonetheless requested support for the bill as an important first step. “I don’t know if this bill really fully contemplates the operation maintenance costs.”

The final $750 million in the $6 billion allocation is slated to go toward a reserve to cover loan losses for local governments and nonprofits as they fund broadband projects.

© 2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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