Across the globe, the digital divide is an issue of growing severity. California is no exception. Though it contains the networking world’s epicenter of innovation, large portions of California are left without adequate connectivity. “We have tremendous complexity in California around who does and doesn’t have access to broadband Internet,” said Louis Fox, president and CEO of CENIC. “Urban areas are generally well connected, but California is also a very rural state with sparsely populated areas distributed across a vast and complex geography.”
The 2017 California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) Annual Survey revealed that only 69% of California households have connectivity through computing devices, which are crucial in terms of finding and applying for jobs, as well as enrolling in classes and doing school work. Computer costs and technical know-how are barriers for many of these households. However lack of broadband infrastructure is also significant: 19% report that Internet service is not available where they live.
Californians without Internet access felt disadvantaged in many of the same areas; 38% felt hampered in their opportunity to gain career skills and take classes, while another 38% lamented their inability to get health and medical information.
To overcome this digital divide, leaders in the public and private sectors are banding together to bring reliable, affordable Internet access to underserved communities. At the CENIC annual conference in March, panelists identified the issues and obstacles that stand in the way of connectivity, and discussed the ways in which they are each working to close the digital divide and provide Internet for all in California.
“The challenge in California right now is not small,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of CETF, a nonprofit established with the express purpose of closing the digital divide. “Our geology makes trying to build anything incredibly complex. Then, add on top of that the diversity of our populations, the complexity of our politics, and the fact that we’re trying to do something that nobody in power is supporting.”
Lack of support may very well stem from lack of awareness. Kim Lewis, CENIC’s legislative advocate, is on a mission to educate the networking world about the plight of underserved communities, which often get left behind, leading to an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots. “The infrastructure in the ground is lacking, and in many areas it’s missing altogether,” said Lewis. “What are our community members going to do when they go home after working all day and their kids don’t have the access they need to do homework?”
In addition to political and geographical barriers, efforts to establish connectivity suffer from under-funding. “The problem is money,” said Rachelle Chong, principal of the Law Offices of Rachelle Chong in San Francisco and former FCC commissioner. “There is inadequate money being spent on broadband infrastructure in the rural and tribal, and sometimes, even suburban areas of California.”
California residents also face connectivity challenges from the private sector. Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic, a facilities-based backhaul and Internet access company, and Skyler Ditchfield, CEO of GeoLinks, a fixed-wireless Internet and telecom provider, are two innovators attempting to disrupt the Internet connectivity market. “Most American households have two choices for broadband, and tend to only have one or zero when it comes to fast access in the range of 50 to 100 megabits per second,” said Jasper. Ditchfield noted that some provided connectivity packages don’t actually supply adequate connectivity. “A cellular connection — 4G or 5G — to the home is not going to solve the problem of connectivity,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to give our kids the capability of accessing the online learning resources they need.”
Fortunately, connectivity champions like these panelists are carving out new pathways for underserved communities. Thanks to legislative advocacy from people like McPeak, Chong, and Ditchfield, new initiatives are being considered and put in motion. “The [California Public Utilities Commission] has just put out a rule-making to give out a $20 million grant for digital literacy in California,” said Chong. “Essentially, if you’re a school, a public library, or a community-based organization, like a local government or nonprofit organization, you can apply for a grant from the CPUC to do two things: gain either digital literacy programs or public access to computers.” (Learn more about two grant opportunities for community-based organizations and apply with CETF between July 17 and to July 27.)
Each member of the panel spoke passionately about getting the rest of California connected to the digital world. “To me, the Internet is the great equalizer,” said Ditchfield. “It allows you, no matter where you are, to learn at your own pace, to learn what you want to learn, and to go out there and research and make something of yourself, whether that’s creating jobs, educating yourself, or taking care of your own medical issues. It should almost be a basic human right.”
All expressed their eagerness to continue their efforts within the CENIC community, hoping to draw on CENIC’s resources and plethora of connections. “CENIC has been a great partner,” said McPeak. “In fostering a culture of collaboration and digital inclusion, CENIC has been a pioneer. You have provided a pathway and been a trailblazer in collaboration.”
It is CENIC’s ongoing goal to bring quality, high-speed broadband service to all research and education communities. We at CENIC look forward to forming new relationships and fostering existing ones to establish Internet access for all in California. (#Net4AllNow)
For Further Reading
- “California wanted to bridge the digital divide but left rural areas behind. Now that’s about to change,” Los Angeles Times, 1/18/18
- “FCC Delays Are Keeping Broadband from Rural Schoolkids,” Wired, 4/18/18
- “This Program Gets Rural Schools Online. Will It Survive Trump’s FCC?”Fast Company, 4/28/17
- “2018 Broadband Deployment Report,” Federal Communications Commission, 2/28/18