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California Broadband Workshop Shows Work Still Needed to Close Digital Divide

November 25, 2015 by NTIA

Even at the epicenter of the high-tech revolution, there are digital haves and have-nots.

NTIA hosted a broadband workshop last week at the Computer History Museum in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. And the take-away was this: the state that gave us semiconductor chips, Internet search engines and smartphones faces the same digital divide challenges as the rest of the nation.

The Bay Area may be home to technology giants such as Intel, Google and Apple. But in the remote reaches of rural Humboldt County, there are tribal lands that still lack basic communications infrastructure. And in the desert towns of the Coachella Valley, there are students who can’t get online to do homework since there is no Internet access in the mobile home communities where they live.

The workshop brought together more than 100 local, state and federal leaders, industry representatives, community activists and other stakeholders to explore broadband challenges and opportunities across California. The workshop was the latest in a series of regional workshops that NTIA is holding around the country as part of its BroadbandUSA initiative, which provides technical assistance and support to communities seeking to expand deployment and adoption of high-speed Internet service. The initiative builds on best practices and lessons learned from NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and State Broadband Initiative, which invested roughly $4 billion nationwide in network infrastructure, public computer centers, computer and Internet training and broadband mapping.

Comprehensive mapping data from the California Public Utilities Commission shows that while 98 percent of urban households in California have access to wired broadband speeds of at least 6 megabits per second downstream, that number drops to just 43 percent for rural households. What’s more, the commission found that the limited reliability of wireless service in many rural areas means that wireless connections rarely fill the gap.

Still, the workshop underscored that California is making progress.

The California Broadband Council is working with public, private, non-profit and tribal stakeholders to drive investment in network infrastructure and get more Californians online. Adelina Zendejas of the California Department of Technology outlined the council’s efforts to push streamlined permitting processes for Internet service providers seeking access to state property, “dig once” protocols and other policies to spur deployment.

Meanwhile, the CPUC manages a $315 million grant and loan program called the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to expand broadband in unserved and underserved communities, including rural areas where the economics don’t work for the private sector. CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval explained that the fund is bringing broadband to places where even electricity and basic phone lines are not universal, including the Karuk and Yurok lands of Northern Humboldt County. The tribes are using a $6.6 million CASF award to install more than 80 miles of fiber in a project called the Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative.

CASF also invested in six BTOP projects, including two major networks that have brought high-speed capacity to parts of the state previously reliant on decades-old telephone systems. One is the Digital 395 network, a 624-mile system running along the Highway 395 corridor in the Eastern Sierras that was built as a public-private partnership. The other is Central Valley Next Generation Broadband Infrastructure Project, a 1,200-mile fiber-optic backbone connecting 18 Central Valley counties that was the product of collaboration between local phone companies and California’s research and education network.

Officials from all these projects participated in last week’s workshop.

The workshop also highlighted innovation at the local level. San Francisco Chief Information Officer Miguel Gamino described municipal efforts to offer free Wi-Fi in public spaces such as libraries and outlined his vision for a “hyper-connected” city with high-speed connectivity choices for all. And Santa Monica CIO Jory Wolf listed the benefits of his community’s 100-gigabit City Net network, which has saved the municipality hundreds of thousands of dollars on telecommunications costs, pushed down broadband rates for local homes and businesses and made Santa Monica the hub of a thriving “Silicon Beach” economy.

Farther to the East, in the Coachella Valley, local school officials have pioneered a “Wi-Fi on Wheels” program to build on the district’s one-to-one classroom computing initiative. The district outfitted 100 school buses with Wi-Fi connections to let students get online with their iPads to do homework during long rides to and from school.

The private sector, too, is engaged. Frontier Communications, which is seeking regulatory approval to buy Verizon’s wireline operations in California, discussed plans to leverage federal Universal Service Fund dollars to expand broadband availability in rural communities.

The workshop also showcased innovative digital inclusion programs such as the Youth Policy Institute, which offers Internet access and training in BTOP-funded public computer centers in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, and the Stride Center, a BTOP subgrantee that provides technical training for the chronically unemployed and operates a call center to help people get online.

Despite the success stories, State Assembly Member Jim Wood stressed that there is still more to be done. In his district, which stretches from the Oregon border to the heart of Wine Country, a lack of ubiquitous, high-speed Internet access means that there are still schools where students can’t go online to study and local businesses that must resort to credit card imprint devices to accept payments.

So the work continues. But California has come a long way and NTIA is proud to be part of that progress. We look forward to continuing the partnership to close the gaps that remain.