Bridging California’s Digital Equity Gap
Luis Coronado, a factory worker of Huntington Park, was injured on the job at a paper products company and unable to work when the COVID-19 lockdown began. His wife also lost her job, and the family gave up cable and internet subscriptions to save money. “The pandemic has hit us hard,” Coronado said.
He suffered from a dislocated shoulder and a torn bicep while his 9-year-old fourth grader struggled with online lessons. ” He was late. He didn’t pay attention to the lessons. And even when the child could focus on school, Coronado said, the school district-provided hotspot he used to log into Zoom often took him offline.
Thousands of students couldn’t learn and fell behind in school because they didn’t have fast, reliable internet. Others were unable to access medical or telehealth counseling appointments, take advantage of online banking, or use the internet to look for work or apply for social services.
Eighty-four percent of Californians were online in 2019, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reported in 2021, but in some communities broadband subscription rates are much lower. For example, in the heavily Latino town of Huntington Park, where Luis Coronado lives, 21% of residents don’t have internet access, according to US Census data compiled by LA County. Data shows that more than a quarter of Watts residents are offline.
“In urban areas of LA, affordability is really tough for reliable high-speed service, and those are areas we’re working hard to support.”
~ Selwyn Hollins, Director, LA County Department of Internal Services
The pandemic has made it clear that poor people of color have been massively left on the wrong side of the digital divide and suffered disproportionately. In 2021, after years of wringing the issue, elected officials have taken action. Congress has allocated $65 billion in infrastructure funding for digital access, some of which is available to states and localities through competitive grants. The funding could trigger a flood of new projects. The California State Legislature has approved a plan to use $6 billion of those funds to connect residents who are unserved or underserved by their internet service providers, and local city and of the county plan to create their own networks.
Steve Hargis, chief information officer in the town of Moreno Valley, Riverside County, plans to establish free Wi-Fi throughout the town. “Our residents cannot fully participate in society if they are unconnected.”
LA County is designing a pilot project to connect some 12,500 homes to its own wireless network. “In urban areas of LA, affordability is really challenging for reliable high-speed service, and those are areas we’re working hard to support,” said LA County Department of Internal Services Manager Selwyn Hollins. and resource person for the project. Last fall, the county faced opposition from those who argue that the creation and management of the network is best left to the private sector. But, Hollins pointed out, the county is looking for a public-private partnership. The county took a first step on March 21 by issuing a request for qualifications for companies that could connect the unconnected in seven LA County communities, from Watts to Panorama City.
“The current infrastructure has had young girls sitting outside a Taco Bell in Salinas just trying to get a signal for school.”
~ Chao Jun Liu, Legislative Counsel, Electronic Frontier Foundation
The largest and arguably the most important project is the state’s $6 billion Middle Mile Broadband Initiative, which includes $3.25 billion to build an open-access fiber optic network. In Internet terms, the “middle mile” refers to high-speed, high-capacity cables that allow local service providers to connect homes and businesses to the global Internet. “Open Access” means that the state will allow any business or organization to tap into its network at reasonable rates to connect underserved communities. The state also plans to spend $2 billion to fund projects that would establish “last mile” connections between high-speed lines and homes. It will create a fund to help municipalities finance their broadband projects and allocate funds for broadband deployment in housing projects and on tribal lands.
Currently, companies such as AT&T, which provides high-speed Internet access in most of the state; Charter Spectrum and Cox Cable in Southern California; and Comcast Xfinity in the northern part of the state dominate the market largely because they control the cables and wires that power the internet, digital equity advocates say.
But public infrastructure could allow small businesses to compete with large telecommunications companies.
“The current infrastructure has resulted in young girls sitting outside a Taco Bell in Salinas, just trying to get a signal for school,” said Chao Jun Liu, a legislative attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in the Bay Area, during an Assembly oversight hearing in February. “If we build and build boldly, it will never happen again.”
Capital & Main is launching a new reporting project to explore how the digital divide has widened the inequality gap – in education, healthcare and job opportunities. In a series of stories, we’ll follow the coming battle between big telecoms and localities as public sector rivals set out to connect the unconnected. We’ll explore how a few giant corporations have become the almighty guardians of the Internet for American customers, how that’s affected customers in Southern California, and whether state and county efforts to create their own networks will lessen their control.
In 2021, the state legislature unanimously approved his $6 billion plan to create a broadband network to connect all Californians.
Digital inclusion advocates say telecom companies were able to fend off competition when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the industry under the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s. Instead of having more choice and lower rates, most consumers ended up with internet monopolies or duopolies because large telcos were no longer required to share their networks with smaller potential competitors at reasonable rates, advocates say of digital inclusion.
The California middle mile initiative aims to create opportunities for new Internet service providers to spring up. If successful, this could facilitate more affordable internet access in currently underserved areas.
In 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the state legislature unanimously approved its $6 billion interim plan to create a broadband network to connect all Californians. State disclosures show that AT&T, Charter Spectrum and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association collectively spent $3.6 million on lobbying last year, including on the state level. But they did not publicly oppose it.
The industry trade group, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, even announced its qualified support, backing the idea of bringing Internet access to the unserved.
But the group, along with its member companies, does not place city dwellers who cannot afford access in this category.
One of the first 18 locations where the state plans to begin building its high-speed internet infrastructure is a stretch of southern Los Angeles County near Compton and Bellflower and along the 710 Freeway near Working Class, primarily Latino towns like Bell and Huntington Park, an area where broadband subscription rates are considerably lower than the county average.
CCTA spokesman Bernie Orozco told lawmakers at the Assembly oversight hearing in February that building intermediate networks in urban areas would be “expensive” and redundant.
In comments filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, Charter Spectrum, which serves the area, says 99% of area residents can access the Internet.
Nineteen percent of homes in the City of Bell don’t have internet access, compared to 13 percent of homes in LA County as a whole.
“They’re not wrong” that the infrastructure exists, said Ernesto Falcon, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the telcos control the infrastructure, and he said the key questions are “What do they charge for?” Is access open? It’s true that we have infrastructure, but it’s not at a good price.
Falcon argues that companies simply oppose competition. But he said it was unlikely they would be able to alter the state’s $6 billion plan. “I think there is a strong hand in keeping the law as it is structured.”
“Charter has a long-standing commitment to increasing connectivity,” spokesman Dennis Johnson said in an email to Capital & Main. He argued that the US federal connectivity program offers a solution in the form of a $30 per month broadband subsidy for low-income customers. The company is offering a $17.99 per month internet plan to customers eligible for the subsidy.
None of the telecoms giant’s arguments about the best ways to connect the unconnected aired on a Saturday morning in March as Charter Spectrum joined state and local authorities for a ‘digital inclusion event’, a party at Treder Park in Bell, 35,000 inhabitants. Nineteen percent of homes in the city don’t have internet access, compared to 13 percent of homes in Los Angeles County as a whole.
The company has sought to establish its digital capital in good faith on its own terms. He donated 40 Chromebooks, along with tacos, cupcakes and corporate gifts, and presented an oversized replica of a $20,000 check to a nonprofit that helps train locals in skills digital. He also promoted his own broadband plan for low-income people.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who represents the region, and Congresswoman Cristina Garcia, who is running for Congress, spoke as several dozen people – most with children in tow – listened politely before speaking. line up to pick up their laptops.
Luis Coronado snagged one of the Chromebooks for his wife. He’s back online, paying $120 a month for combined cable and internet access.
“It connects well sometimes and then it goes away,” he said. “It goes in and it goes out.”
Coronado and its Southeast Los Angeles neighbors could be among the first to see if California’s digital experience will improve internet service and lower prices.
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