In summary

Lock in the details for a “middle mile” broadband infrastructure plan before June 15 to secure billions in federal funding.

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By Joy Sterling, Special to CalMatters

Joy Sterling is a member of the California Food and Agriculture Board,

The governor has put forward what may be a generational proposal for bridging the digital divide with billions of dollars in federal and state surplus funding. It sounds like a no-brainer: The Legislature’s budget proposal contains $7 billion in funding with the financing/implementation details to be worked out later, after the budget deadline, June 15. 

What’s the hold up? Why not lock in the details now? Delay could jeopardize the federal funding.

The governor’s plan is to build a state-owned-and-operated, open access “middle mile” of broadband network infrastructure — the last thing the telecommunications giants want to see.  

For 10 years,  we have tried the industry’s preferred scenario to expand broadband service with no success. It is time we bust their near-monopoly model and without more delay.  

A key part of the broadband solution is creating an open access, “middle mile” network –- like a highway running through the state with on-ramps and off-ramps. The fundamental economic principle is simple: Open-access, middle-mile networks can provide the savings that spur last-mile providers to build farther and faster, to reach residences, businesses and working agricultural lands with robust service moving at modern speeds. 

Competition generally leads to lower prices, higher quality, greater innovation, and improved customer service. 

As each section of fiber is laid down, it will have an immediate positive effect on the surrounding communities. To those who say the governor’s proposal is not a cure-all, I say yes, that is correct, but it is a critical piece of the puzzle and time sensitive. 

Most of the $7 billion in funding comes from the federal government with certain terms and conditions. The monies must be assigned by Dec. 31, 2024, and according to recent guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, it can fund infrastructure projects to be completed by Dec. 31, 2026. 

Enacting this piece will allow the planning process, including environmental review, to get started. It will free up the parties to negotiate legislation that address outstanding issues such as affordability and how to empower local governments, tribes and nonprofits to build out networks with grants and bond backing.

Time is of the essence. We must begin the work to connect the 2.3 million Californians with no meaningful access to the internet, while at the same time laying the groundwork for affordability and choice for the 15.4 million more who live in broadband monopolies.

Deployment and affordability are not either/or options. We need both and it will take a mosaic of measures to cover all unserved and underserved communities. 

Open access “middle mile” infrastructure will be our core strength, ensuring our resilience and redundancy for public safety, economic development, health care, education, agriculture and social equity. Looking to the future, even advanced technology, such as satellite internet, ultimately needs fiber in the ground.

California should shine in our natural leadership role. This is for our children, who do their homework in a fast-food restaurant parking lot because it is the only place they can access adequate broadband service. It is for the future of all Californians. 

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