‘Digital deserts’ push life to the slow lane

Illustration of online activity at a snail's pace. (mattsabe, Shutterstock)

For many years, those working in food systems have used the word desert  — a barren area of land where living conditions are hostile — to describe urban places that have no grocery stores. The term “food desert” has drawn crucial attention to health problems that occur where it’s a struggle to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

But the lack of access to fresh food is not the only geographic injustice in low-income neighborhoods and rural communities.

Sixteen percent of Californians remain completely off line, and 14% connect only through a smart phone.

In California — and all across the country — there are “digital deserts,” places where it’s impossible to get high-speed Internet access at home and thus impossible to do homework, apply for jobs and be a full-fledged member of the digital economy.  These digital deserts also prevent farmers from using Internet technology to improve efficiencies in growing crops and getting them to markets.

Can there really be digital deserts in digital-dominant California?  Yes.  Although significant progress has been made in recent years, 16% of Californians remain completely off line, and 14% connect only through a smart phone.   Thus 30% of all California households are either unconnected or under-connected.

The reasons for this digital divide are twofold.  One is our high rate of poverty.  Four in 10 California residents are living near or in poverty, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.  This means millions cannot afford the cost of home Internet (averaging $50 per month) plus a computer.

The other reason for the digital divide is inadequate infrastructure. As an example, broadband infrastructure grades in rural areas of Yolo County —  not even 20 minutes from the Capitol of the 6th largest economy in the world – are ranked F.

The California Public Utilities Commission documented in an April 2017 report that 43% of Californians in rural areas have no reliable broadband.

The glaring fact is that California is suffering from digital deserts — from Crescent City, Redding and Tahoe City to the Delta, Stockton, Fresno and Calexico.

We are particularly aware that broadband infrastructure enables the efficient use of water, fertilizer and fuel.

And these deserts are drying out economic self-sufficiency and development, because, as numerous studies show, where there is no high-speed Internet there is diminishing opportunity for educational attainment, business growth and civic engagement.

Some say that the marketplace or a technological innovation will quickly come to the rescue.  They are wrong.  The urban/rural digital divide persists, as is well documented by the Federal Communications Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission and many others.

An immediate solution can be found in an existing program established by the Legislature in 2008 — the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) which comes from a few cents monthly surcharge on our phone bills.  To date, CASF has supported 58 broadband infrastructure projects providing access to hundreds of communities throughout the state.  Yet CASF soon will be out of money, with digital deserts continuing to dot the California landscape.

As managers of a broadband consortia working to increase connectivity in agricultural areas in the Capital and San Joaquin Valley regions, we are particularly aware that broadband infrastructure enables the efficient use of water, fertilizer and fuel. Through agriculture-technology pilots we are leading in Fresno and Yolo counties, we are seeing how remote sensing and monitoring technologies can increase yields, monitor food safety, reduce food waste, help address labor shortages and expand access to market and distribution networks.

We also are acutely aware that innovative agricultural and production technologies depend on wireless transmission of data—and that the current lack of access to broadband infrastructure and communications technologies is restraining   movement toward a more sustainable, competitive and efficient agricultural industry.

The recent drought is but one example of why new agricultural technologies are needed to help farmers better manage precious water resources. These innovative technologies are being incubated in our universities but cannot be deployed on our farms and in our rural communities without 21st century broadband infrastructure.

That is why we support the Internet For All Now Act (AB 1665), which would extend CASF to achieve 98 percent broadband access in each region of the state.  Authored by 22 legislators—both Democrats and Republicans—the bill would prioritize last mile, unserved households and provide funds for getting poor, rural Californians online.

We commend the bi-partisan authors who introduced AB 1665, including Assemblymembers Eduardo Garcia and our Sacramento Valley leaders Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Brian Dahle, James Gallagher, and Kevin McCarty, and we thank Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee Chairman Miguel Santiago for leading the negotiations among stakeholders to reach agreement on moving California forward.

Broadband access for our rural areas is a high priority for our regional leaders. Last week’s Cap to Cap trip sponsored by the Metro Chamber carried the message to national leaders. At home, The Internet For All Now Act is our best opportunity to “green” California’s digital deserts.

Ed’s Note: Eduardo Gonzalez is the director of the Small Business Development Center at Fresno State University, which leads the San Joaquin Valley Broadband Consortium. Trish Kelly is a managing director of Valley Vision, leading the nonprofit’s food and ag-related projects and the Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium.


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