The digital divide and broadband in California | CalMatters


In summary

Stakeholders from across California participated in a moderated discussion about the state’s digital divide and its effects on small businesses.

The pandemic has exposed all kinds of inequalities, including high-speed internet access. Nearly a quarter of California households did not have a broadband subscription in 2019, according to a report by the California Broadband Council.

The pandemic also made a fast and reliable internet connection at home more important than ever: Patients could meet their doctors safely via video chat, students were taking Zoom classes, and some business owners stayed afloat. by creating an online presence for the first time.

CalMatters reporter Jackie Botts moderated a Milken Institute discussion on September 21 on the digital divide in California, as well as recent efforts at state and federal levels to address the issue.

Panelists ranged from leaders of trade associations representing the interests of large Internet service providers to business owners in counties with spotty Internet access. They discussed the main barriers to broadband access in California, what they hope to see in the state’s new programs, and how to ensure that building new infrastructure actually translates into Internet access. increased.

Here are three takeaways.

1. The barriers to Internet access are not just physical infrastructure.

Parts of California lack the physical infrastructure – fiber optic cables, for example – for adequate broadband connections.

But not being able to afford an internet connection – whether it’s the monthly bill or an internet-connected device – is another hurdle for many residents. Yet another is the digital literacy surrounding broadband; many Californians do not know how to set up or use the Internet. Help on this, according to Sunne Wright McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, must be delivered to low-income communities by trusted messengers – groups who are already raising awareness and can provide information in the language residents understand best.

Physical infrastructure, however, remains a major obstacle. Michael Anderson, founder and CEO of Clientworks Inc., a Nevada City-based IT services company, said schools in his area have distributed 2,000 hotspots to students, but no improvements have been made to the towers. cellular telephony. Then the area’s cell phone towers crashed and the kids couldn’t connect. The students ended up driving to the school parking lots, Anderson said, in order to log in and do their homework.

2. Places with good broadband access saw very small businesses thrive during the pandemic.

Areas that have better broadband also tend to have more micro-businesses – businesses with fewer than 10 employees – said Alexandra Rosen, senior director of Venture Forward, a multi-year study funded by web services company GoDaddy for study these very small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Venture Forward surveyed 20 million microenterprises nationwide and found that regions with more internet-connected businesses saw unemployment decline throughout the pandemic.

“People didn’t have to let their employees go because they could go online and serve other markets,” says Rosen.

3. The state and the federal government have committed millions of dollars to close the digital divide.

Several panelists spoke of the estimated $ 7.5 billion the state and federal government have pledged to bridge the digital divide in California. California’s new broadband infrastructure package is one of the state’s largest public fiber investments in U.S. history, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

One of the programs in this package is a state-run open access intermediate mile network. Jackie Botts of CalMatters described the network as a public information highway, from which small roads will branch out, connecting people’s homes. The idea, Botts said, is that the state will build the highway and Internet service providers will build the private roads to people’s homes.

“We risk wasting a lot of money if we don’t focus on this last mile consumer,” said Wright McPeak of the California Emerging Technology Fund.

Carolyn McIntyre, president of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, which represents the state’s largest internet providers, said last mile coverage will require public and private partnerships – and local governments could also be able to provide this connectivity. McIntyre also said she hopes part of the government funding will go towards grants for building last mile connectivity.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” McIntyre said, referring to the significant amount of government funding on the table. “It’s really important that the priorities are set correctly and that funding goes to the areas that need it most. “

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