Greater broadband access is critical to closing the digital divide

Illustration of a highspeed connections at a data center: >i>(Image: Anucha Cheechang, via Shutterstock)

During the past year, as the pandemic inflicted incalculable heartbreak and loss, internet connectivity helped Californians get through the worst public health crisis in over 100 years.

Whether for remote work, school, a doctor’s appointment, or visiting loved ones far away, our computers proved essential for far more than answering email and shopping. Virtual meetings kept us in business and educated our children. They allowed us to go on living and interact with others despite extreme physical isolation.

A transformation of the system as we know it is set to begin.

But while reliable, high-speed internet access became a lifeline to so many of us during the pandemic, this lifeline was not equally available to all of us.

This digital divide was proven to be especially acute in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas. In fact, 10 percent of low-income households in California rely solely on smartphones for connecting to the internet. A third of students in impoverished neighborhoods lack adequate broadband for the most basic online learning activities. The disparity is even higher for people of color, senior citizens and people with disabilities.

It is clear that communicating, learning and working remotely are here to stay. But despite our best intentions, many Californians are being left behind as we enter this new virtual era.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Telecommunications companies are racing to improve access to meet increased demand. A new 5G broadband network promises better, faster service for everyone. A transformation of the system as we know it is set to begin.

So, what are we waiting for?

Bureaucratic costs and delays have slowed progress. State-of-the-art equipment that would fill the gap for millions is set to go up on existing light poles, but red tape is preventing installation.

There’s a solution. Senate Bill 556 would remove hurdles standing before broadband expansion projects. The legislation has already received overwhelming support in the Senate and is now under consideration in the Assembly.

It would not require cities to give up control over placement, aesthetics and other considerations. The bill also conforms with new regulations that have been adopted in recent years around wildfire safety, prevention and resilience. Put simply, it is a commonsense solution to a vexing problem.

To help ensure equitable access, the bill would require service providers to monitor their progress toward reaching California’s universal broadband access goals by reporting wireless broadband coverage by census tract annually to the Legislature.

SB 556 is backed by business associations, educators, equity advocates, community-based organizations, senior citizen advocacy groups and 30,000 Californians across the state. It is seen as essential for small employers struggling to recover. It’s also necessary to close the achievement gap in schools, where online education will continue after reopening.

Now, more than ever, success in business or education requires better access to quality internet service. For our communities to thrive, we need an all-of-the-above approach to help close the digital divide. SB 556 is a critical part of the solution.

Editor’s Note: State Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) represents the 3rd District and serves as the chair of the Governmental Organization Committee. Michael Lizárraga is president & CEO of TELACU, a community development corporation that serves people in California’s low-income communities.

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