Dunn and Done: Legislature, You’re Not Done Closing California’s Digital Divide
Orange County’s local economy is thriving. Unemployment is less than 6 percent and the median household income approaches $95,000*. Nevertheless, inequities still leave many at a disadvantage: skyrocketing housing costs, inflation, supply chain constraints, goods getting to market shelves, high gas prices, and more.
Another stark example of inequity lies in the so-called “digital divide,” or the inability to access high quality internet because of geographic availability and affordability. Despite much of Orange County having quality coverage and the right infrastructure in place for broadband service, even greater challenges lie with the difficulty many face to simply afford internet costs and the devices necessary to use the internet.
These challenges place a drag on the very factors which are the foundation of Orange County as a global economic powerhouse—it limits educational attainment and innovation and exacerbates socioeconomic and age divisions.
While California has taken a few steps to address the digital divide, more must be done. Recently, the State allocated $6 billion to broadband network build-out via new legislation–SB 156–a historic investment indeed. But public-private collaboration will be key. Internet providers are already investing billions in improving and maintaining wireless and wireline infrastructure. Let’s not recreate the wheel with over-regulation, but rather focus on where the gaps are and target solutions with government and business working together and address the unserved areas first and foremost—getting internet access to every home.
To do this, California’s implementation plan needs clarifying language; specifically, that federal funds under the Biden administration’s “American Rescue Plan” (ARP) coming to California are spent efficiently and that they will be transferred from so-called “middle mile” infrastructure to “last mile” broadband projects where necessary.
“Middle mile” refers to the “backbone” of the statewide infrastructure network and those projects are more labor-intensive, while “last mile” is the final connection to the home, business, or other end use facility.
Federal ARP funds that are a part of the State’s SB 156 must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Therefore, the State must enact a requirement that any “middle mile” money that is not allocated by the end of 2023, or spent by the end of the following year, should be utilized for crucial “last mile” construction to actually connect homes to the network. This will avoid building projects that connect broadband to nowhere.
Going forward, the legislature must demand transparency and accountability from regulators, specifically the California Public Utilities Commission. CPUC oversees much of the implementation of new state funds. However, there are currently only minimal disclosure requirements placed on the commission despite its enormous mandate. In the future, CPUC should be required to regularly report how many homes have been served by its broadband work, the dollars spent per household reached, the dollars spent per mile of “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, internet adoption rates, and detailed multiyear cost estimates to end the digital divide. Trust but verify, as the old saying goes.
The California state auditor should also be authorized to ensure competent management of these broadband projects and funding. Greater oversight of CPUC will allow policymakers and stakeholders to remain up-to-date on the commission’s progress and Californians will know where their tax dollars are going.
The State must take the right steps to achieve the collective goal of closing digital inequities that persist across California including right here in Orange County. The private sector stands ready to work with public decision-makers in guiding that investment. Strategic focus on unserved areas, increased oversight of regulators, and requirements that extra dollars be rolled to “last mile” are key components of creating an effective strategy to bring internet to everyone. With precise implementation of the commitment made in SB 156, we can ensure no one is stranded without connectivity to modern digital learning, online business opportunities and much more.
* “Orange County Facts & Figures” https://www.fullerton.edu/cdr/ocff.pdf