The Mercury News: Opinion: California must not squander chance to bridge digital divide

September 14, 2021
California is the technology capital of the world. Home to the largest and most innovative companies, our state is in many ways a shining example of the power of the digital to shape a more creative and prosperous society.
Yet outside the glitter of Silicon Valley and the state’s major urban hubs, there’s a major divide we must confront: California’s rural communities and their 2.2 million residents are largely shut out of the tech economy and its benefits because they lack access to broadband.
Our state ranks eighth in urban access to 25/3 mbps broadband, but a distant 16th in rural areas. For fiber broadband (100/100) — the fastest and most reliable technology — California ranks 30th in urban access and an abysmal 46th in rural fiber access at just 10.7%. Our neighbors in Oregon have double the percentage of rural residents with fiber broadband. In North Dakota, rural fiber access is eight times higher.
We see the stark consequences of this divide in our state. Sen. Lena Gonzalez represents a district that includes some of the most advanced aerospace companies in the world and is also home to many historically underserved communities in Southeast Los Angeles. Sen. Josh Becker represents a district that includes Silicon Valley, a global hub for technology and innovation that stretches to rural communities on the coast.

These places — roughly just an hour from where firms are receiving billions of investment for cutting-edge tech and aerospace — are stuck with outdated services such as dial-up and DSL or minimally wired broadband that doesn’t allow for remote work, telehealth or virtual learning, let alone the digital entrepreneurship our state prides itself on.

In California, we’ve worked hard over the past year to position ourselves to close the digital divide so we can engage the untapped innovative potential in our rural and under-resourced communities. Broadband is the gateway to our tech economy. We must provide this access to every Californian, no matter where they live, if we truly want to bridge the digital chasm that has barred so many of our neighbors from opportunity and success.

Fortunately, the state now has a chance to take real action. With the passage of the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, California is slated to use $6 billion to improve broadband connectivity and affordability. The task before us now is to make sure we use this opportunity right.

To us, that means investing in fiber infrastructure that brings gigabit-speed connectivity to every Californian home, school and business. There’s lots of talk of different internet technologies, such as satellites or fixed wireless, that may appear to be faster or cheaper. But we believe we owe it to our residents to make the best long-term investment, one that’s adaptable to changing technology: Fiber provides the fastest speeds, lowest latency, and easiest potential for upgrades, all with the added benefit that it can save money in the long run.

The state Legislature recently passed SB 4, which we authored to update California’s only broadband infrastructure subsidy program to provide grants for local governments and nonprofits to build fiber networks in California’s unserved and underserved areas — a much needed reform. And now, Gov. Gavin Newsom has the chance to sign it into law.

With our collective knowledge of California communities and best practices in rural development nationwide, we already know that we’ll need to empower community stakeholders. Their involvement will ensure equitable deployment and utilization of the broadband that is built. For now, the need is clear, the funding is available, and the time to act is right before us. Let’s start building a more connected future.

Read article online here.