In summary

The state must increase grant funding to help communities invest in much-needed broadband technology.

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By Lena Gonzalez, Special to CalMatters

State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat from Long Beach, represents the state Senate’s 33rd District, senator.gonzales@sen.ca.gov.

Securing continuous funding to invest in broadband infrastructure in poorly served communities will create jobs and provide economic opportunities.  

California can narrow the digital divide by investing in 21st century infrastructure, updated internet speed standards, and above all, equitable broadband deployment. The global pandemic has underscored the importance and urgency of this civil rights issue. California should commit to ensuring all communities have the technology needed to participate fully in our society, our economy and our democracy. 

My legislation, Senate Bill 4, the Broadband for All act, would help California do just that.

SB4 would secure continuous funding for broadband service grants in underserved communities by extending the time the state can collect surcharge fees from internet service providers for a state grant fund. The bill promotes deployment of 100 megabits per second broadband infrastructure, which would allow residents to stream videos, play online games and attend video chat meetings with few or no slowdowns. It would make it easier for local governments and nonprofits to apply for grants, and reform the California Public Utilities Commission’s grant program to ensure projects focus on meeting the needs of unserved and underserved areas.

In the four decades since the internet was adopted, internet service providers have drawn the broadband deployment map, leaving Californians at the mercy of corporate interests when it comes to broadband access. It’s time to change that.

If Senate Bill 4 becomes law, Californians will have more internet service providers, better service pricing options, and greater high-speed internet access for school, telehealth, work and much more. By securing funds for years to come and by making it easier for more entities to apply for grants and finance their own infrastructure, SB4 would help bring more ISPs to California’s underserved and unserved areas and help address economic disparities for communities most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

When the pandemic hit, California lost 2.6 million jobs in March and April of 2020. Those most vulnerable to layoffs and furloughs were those making less than $40,000 a year, less educated workers and Latino workers. These same communities are also significantly affected by lack of adequate broadband infrastructure.

In a recent survey, the economic disadvantage stemming from poor broadband access was shown to have grown more acute since the pandemic began.  Low-income households, individuals without a high school diploma and nearly 1 in 4 Latinos are unconnected or under-connected to broadband and thus less able to work from home.

They fell economically further behind as jobs, schooling and community participation activities moved online as the coronavirus spread.  This holds true for communities in my district, such as Bell Gardens, Maywood and South Gate, in Los Angeles County, where more than 13% of the population lives in poverty, 20% of the population does not have a high school diploma and 48.6% are Latino, and where broadband adoption is lagging significantly behind other regions. 

Broadband for All would help expand economic opportunity to individuals by making it easier to search for jobs. Evidence shows that people searching for jobs online can be hired up to 25% faster compared to individuals using traditional methods, which can also be more costly by requiring printed and mailed applications. Studies have also found that broadband access is associated with higher employment rates in rural counties, as well as the development of internet skills that result in greater earning power. 

The economic benefits go beyond the individual. Broadband for All could also help reap great economic gains for entire communities and businesses. Chattanooga, Tenn.,for example, launched a public broadband infrastructure initiative that had an economic impact of more than $2.69 billion over 10 years. The entire county benefited from 9,516 new jobs of which 40 percent were directly attributable to improved broadband. Business investments increased in value 35.7%, roughly $962.8 million.

California can make digital equity a reality and help individuals and businesses recover as the economy re-opens post pandemic. It’s time to seize the moment with efforts to ensure broadband for all.

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