(April 23 -- By Bill Mueller and Lloyd Levine, Special to The Bee)
California and regional leaders in Sacramento have set a goal to close the digital divide in our state by 2017. A key component of this ambitious decadelong initiative is to extend broadband Internet access to 98 percent of California households. Every day we see examples of how broadband technology is empowering Californians and transforming their lives. Still, the divide persists, leaving many people and communities behind.
For California to remain a beacon of innovation, equality and economic vitality, all residents should have access to affordable high-speed Internet connections wherever they live. Unfortunately, many of the state's rural areas are not adequately served, limiting important services such as telemedicine, remote learning and e-commerce that would help these communities improve the quality of life and diversify their economies.
To reach the remaining unconnected households, broadband advocates from around the state, including Valley Vision in the Sacramento area, and the California Emerging Technology Fund, are strongly supporting Senate Bill 740. The bill, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, is a critical next step. The legislation is set to be heard April 30 in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. It is designed to give the California Public Utilities Commission more flexibility and resources to award California Advanced Services Fund grants to a broader range of organizations that are uniquely suited to serve hard-to-reach communities.
SB 740 represents a crucial piece of a broadband deployment strategy started in 2007 that already has allocated a large portion of the original $225 million in deployment funds to close the digital divide. Several of those projects, including laying fiber optic cable through 18 Central Valley counties, from Fresno to Plumas, and down Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra, have successfully leveraged more than $420 million in federal broadband deployment grants, and are well under way. This new legislation would expand the California Advanced Services Fund deployment by $100 million, which will go a long way in reaching the 98 percent goal. But increasing funding isn't the only solution.
In many cases, telephone companies say they can't justify the expense of deploying broadband due to high costs and low financial returns, even with government subsidies. That's why it's so important to allow additional providers to sponsor deployment projects using the California Advanced Services Fund. SB 740 would expand eligibility to include applicants ranging from local housing authorities to tribal organizations to smaller wireless Internet service providers to nonprofits such as the California Telehealth Network, which links community health clinics to top medical experts. It also would jump-start private-public partnerships, allowing each partner to bring its special expertise to the table and leverage resources. Even though the range of applicants would grow, they must still play by the same set of rules, meet the high performance standards set by the PUC, and deliver.
In the Sacramento area, the Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium, under the stewardship of Valley Vision, is identifying and coordinating strategic broadband investments in Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. The consortium is intently focused on bringing investments that enhance economic development efforts in line with our Next Economy job-growth strategies.
Broadband is an essential infrastructure to help with economic recovery efforts, especially in the rural and underserved regions. There were no applications from the Sacramento region in the two most recent California Advanced Services Fund infrastructure grant and loan rounds, yet multiple partners are ready to bid on critical projects if eligibility is expanded.
The need is urgent. Valley Vision hears from rural educators about the inequities they see daily. While students may have Internet access at school, far too many lack broadband at home to download their homework assignments, get after-school support from their teacher or access information for schoolwork. These children are being left behind, and their academic performance is suffering. This disparity has real world consequences because children without digital skills aren't going to be as competitive in our 21st century global workforce.
Getting all Californians connected is a complex problem to solve. While we have made great progress over the past decade, the mission now is to connect the hardest to reach. SB 740 is essential if we want to finally close the digital divide in California.
Bill Mueller is CEO and managing partner of Valley Vision. Lloyd Levine is a former chairman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, and serves on the board of the California Emerging Technology Fund.