In November, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled plans for a new Broadband for All initiative, with his administration immediately gathering stakeholder input. Now a workgroup organized by California Forward has released its recommendations to the administration, which builds on decades of local, state and federal efforts to close “the digital divide.” Topping their list: "Commence with urgency and treat the situation like the true emergency that it is."
Lenny Mendonca, the governor's chief economic and business advisor and director of the Office of Business and Economic Development, will be heading the effort, which he described as “advancing digital equity.” Newsom indicated that connecting schools with broadband will be a centerpiece of the plan.
Yet before the governor’s announcement, Newsom was already stepping into the broadband debate. Notably, in October, he vetoed Assembly Bill 417. That measure would have provided CDFA with an economist to study rural broadband issues, among other areas, and deliver policy recommendations. In his veto message, Newsom suggested he would take up the issue in future budget talks. Calling it unnecessary, Newsom also vetoed AB 1212, which would have encouraged state pension funds to invest in infrastructure projects for broadband. A bill that did pass, AB 488, adds the CDFA secretary to the California Broadband Council, providing a voice for the rural community in the advisory group.
In a blog post for California Forward, meanwhile, Senior Policy Advisor Deb Kollars writes that, in meetings with the administration, it has frequently cited broadband access as the greatest barrier to unlocking economic growth.
Studies have supported this. In California, an estimated 1.4 million individuals lack access to wired broadband internet at any speed. One in eight homes lack access to high-speed broadband, including through a smartphone. One farming community near Sacramento is reported to have the slowest internet speed in the country.
Nationwide, a Federal Communications Commission report indicates more than 24 million Americans lack access to fixed high-speed internet. One USDA study found 29% of farmers lack access, while another study found closing that gap could open up $65 billion in economic growth.
“Somehow the rural economy has been left out of the picture,” said Don Cameron, president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, in his testimony on the issue during a congressional subcommittee hearing on precision agriculture in October.
On the national level, USDA is piloting the ReConnect program, which has now offered nearly half of its $600 million in funds to rural businesses for investing in high-speed internet. So far, however, none of that has reached California.
While touring the state in June, USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue called broadband “a transformational opportunity” and said, “We’re all for it.”
Outside of the precision technologies of tomorrow, enhancing internet connection – as well as cellular bandwidth – would enable a farmer to access more markets, control irrigation systems, monitor soil sensors and “to just build an adequate website,” according to Greg Norton, CEO of the Rural County Representatives of California.
As the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act begins to be implemented in January, being able to monitor water use and manage water trading through digital platforms could be critical to farmers in surviving the next drought.
During a press event in March, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross also noted that connecting socially isolated communities to the digital world is a critical tool in tackling mental health issues in rural regions, where services are already in short supply.
Joy Sterling, CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards, pointed out in a Food and Ag Board meeting Tuesday that improving broadband connections to state fairgrounds would also help emergency response teams coordinate operations during wildfires, as well as other disasters when fairs serve as staging grounds.
Yet bridging the digital divide has been elusive. The financial cost is immense, while regulatory policies and local jurisdictions often serve as inadvertent roadblocks. California’s diverse geography is one of the steepest barriers. Once the infrastructure is established, it takes a few years for the economic benefits to follow, like planting an orchard, as Norton said.
Leading up to its annual California Economic Summit in November, California Forward worked with the administration to assemble a work group tackling the issue. The group, composed of dozens of stakeholder organizations, issued its policy statement last week.
Among its many recommendations, the group suggests the administration align its activities across all agencies to be more efficient with its resources. The administration is already undergoing a similar restructuring effort for water quality regulatory programs. The work group also suggests opening up more public-private partnerships, which Sec. Ross has recommended as well.
When it comes to agriculture, the group asks the governor to go beyond the current 98% deployment goal for 2022, established through AB 1665 in 2017. The administration should acknowledge additional resources are needed to “optimize precision agriculture” by extending wireless connectivity into the fields, the report notes.
In summary, the policy statement categorizes broadband access as both an economic and a social justice issue.
“Inclusivity is a cornerstone value for Californians,” the group writes. “We take pride in raising expectations for acceptance, lowering barriers to opportunity and defining access as a fundamental right.”