Home » ‘Back of the Line Again’: California’s Broadband Plan Deprioritized Underserved Regions, Advocates Say
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‘Back of the Line Again’: California’s Broadband Plan Deprioritized Underserved Regions, Advocates Say

Sacramento Broadband for All Digital Equity and BEAD Workshop at the Sacramento Public Library Galleria in Sacramento, CA on May 11, 2023

In November 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the first 18 projects in the state’s plan to build a public broadband infrastructure system which would help bridge the digital divide between those who have access to high speed internet and those who don’t. That list included underserved communities of Southeast and South Los Angeles, Oakland and the Coachella Valley.

The plan is part of a “once-in-a-lifetime,” $6 billion state and federal investment, which includes $3.8 billion to build a backbone network of high-capacity fiber lines throughout the state, state officials said.

Over the last two years, the California Department of Technology, the agency responsible for mapping the broadband infrastructure, used community input and analysis from the state Public Utilities Commission to create its “ideal” map for the broadband network, said Mark Monroe, deputy director of the department’s middle-mile broadband initiative, at a July meeting.

Then this summer, some community leaders and advocates noticed that portions of the initially proposed broadband network would no longer be built with available funds. Instead, some of the neediest communities were pushed to an unfunded “phase 2” portion of the plan.

“It feels like we’re getting sent to the back of the line again,” said Isabel Aguayo, mayor of the Southeast L.A. city of Paramount.

Advocates and state and community leaders confronted state officials, asking why after years of working with community members to build an infrastructure system that would bridge the digital divide, some parts of the plan were suddenly defunded or deprioritized. Meanwhile, portions of the network infrastructure in wealthier areas, like Beverly Hills, have already been leased.

The Department of Technology responded recently to CalMatters that the governor is committed to funding the entire network with a 2024 budget allocation and that the project will no longer be completed in separate phases.

But the state is facing a $30 billion budget deficit, and some community leaders and advocates are skeptical that the governor will be able to keep his promise. They also said they’re frustrated by the state’s lack of transparency regarding changes to the network.

Broadband for all

Advocates of digital equity and state leaders worked for years to push for the 2021 law that would fund the new broadband infrastructure.

In California, 15% of households, or about 2 million residents, don’t have access to high speed internet, said Niu Gao, a researcher for the Public Policy Institute of California.

Often a few internet service providers have a monopoly over service in an area, which means they can determine pricing and choose where to do business. That has left lower-income and Black, Latino, tribal and rural communities underserved or paying unaffordable prices for internet access, Gao said. The COVID pandemic shed light on an existing internet equity problem.

School districts provided hotspots and free devices to help students who lacked computers and internet accessibility at home, so they could complete school assignments while their schools were closed. But even with the technology, a lack of broadband infrastructure meant many students experienced slow internet speeds, which made it difficult for them to stay on track.

A 2021 photograph of two elementary-age Salinas girls doing their homework in a Taco Bell parking lot using the restaurant’s WiFi went viral, creating a flurry of concern over the now obvious digital divide.

The same year Newsom signed the bill approving broadband funding, saying the state was committed to addressing internet connectivity challenges the pandemic exposed. The state would use mostly federal dollars, including funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“This $6 billion investment will make broadband more accessible than ever before,” he said, “expanding opportunity across the spectrum for students, families and businesses — from enhanced educational supports to job opportunities to health care and other essential services.”

The broadband system would include “middle-mile” broadband networks and “last-mile” networks. Middle-mile broadband network refers to the fiber optic backbone network that will be built out across the state. Last-mile networks connect homes, businesses and schools to that larger state network.

The state would own and manage the system and municipalities, nonprofits, internet service providers and education agencies would tap into the network, in theory creating competition and lowering broadband prices for all Californians, said Gao, the public policy researcher.

Will Newsom keep his promise?

The California Department of Technology said in its July Middle-Mile Advisory Committee meeting that unexpected costs and inflation meant the funds allocated to the project weren’t enough to cover the 10,000 miles of middle-mile broadband that the state planned. The money would only cover 8,300 miles, leaving the remaining 1,700 miles of broadband unfunded.

In Los Angeles, middle-mile broadband infrastructure plans along major highways in South and Southeast L.A. cities were initially cut from the phase one plans, while infrastructure plans for Beverly Hills and West L.A. moved forward.

And in the Bay Area, broadband infrastructure in suburban Livermore and Pleasanton were in phase one plans, but some communities in Oakland were relegated to phase two, said Patrick Messac, director of Oakland Undivided, an organization that aims to help bridge the digital divide.

Although state officials previously spoke about the plan in terms of a “phase one” and “phase two,” after inquiries from media and digital equity advocates, they now say that work for the entire 10,000 miles is underway, although much of it is not yet funded.

“No one area is being prioritized over another by (the California Department of Technology),” said Bob Andosca, a spokesperson for the department. “The work will be authorized immediately in every area where Caltrans completes pre-construction work, and many projects will proceed simultaneously.”

Daniel Lopez, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said closing the digital divide has been a top priority for Newsom. 

“The governor’s commitment to that mission has not wavered and his January (proposed) budget will double down on the state’s work to deliver high-speed internet access to all communities across California and will fund the full 10,000 miles of middle-mile projects,” Lopez said. 

The governor’s office did not answer specific questions about how much funding would be needed to cover the entire network, nor how the budget allocation would be possible if the state is facing a budget deficit. 

“It’s really hard for the people of Oakland to trust more promises when so many have been broken in the past, and the state describes this broadband for all as a once-in-a-generation investment,” said Messac of Oakland Undivided. 

Leaders of the California Community Foundation say they’re grateful the governor has committed to funding the whole network, but they worry the rollout has not been equitable and they are skeptical the project can be completed by the December 2026 deadline, given the overall budget deficit.

Jarrett Barrios, chair of the Digital Equity Team’s Angeleno Project, said the underserved communities were “lifted up” as the reason for seeking funding for a broadband project.

“Communities get overlooked again and again and again and that’s why they are underserved,” he said. “And it becomes habit.”

Assemblymember Mia Bonta, a Democrat from Oakland, met with top-level members of Newsom’s administration at the end of the legislative session to discuss the shortfall in funding.

“Assemblymember Bonta was upset to see a pattern in which the communities that were deprioritized were low-income and communities of color,” said Tomasa Duenas, her spokesperson. “This includes a major portion of Oakland that has historically been underserved by broadband but has a huge need for proper infrastructure … She, along with the California Legislative Black Caucus and others, will be watching to make sure (Newsom) keeps his promise. Too much is at risk.”

Rural and underserved cities left behind

The state’s $6 billion investment includes $2 billion for state grants to go to local governments, internet service providers, nonprofits, libraries and education agencies that plan to build last-mile networks connecting to the state’s network.

The technology department received 483 applications from entities in every county, requesting a total of $4.6 billion, more than twice the grant money available.

But with the changes to the middle-mile plan, some communities that applied for those grants are wondering if their work was in vain.

The middle-mile changes likely will determine which municipalities and agencies are prioritized for the grants. The farther away a last-mile project is from the middle-mile network, the more expensive it is, making broadband projects in underserved communities less tenable, said Shayna Englin, director of the California Community Foundation’s Digital Equity Initiative.

Some groups chose to scale back ambitious plans because they no longer know what middle-mile networks are guaranteed.

Others have chosen to wait to see if the state Public Utilities Commission has answers about which projects will be funded or delayed, Englin said.

One of those project applicants is the Gateway Council of Governments, a group of 26 Southeast Los Angeles-area cities, including Compton, Paramount, Bellflower and Lakewood.

The leaders of the council were excited to learn in November 2021 they would be prioritized. They immediately got to work.

The group applied for the state grant and invested two years developing a cost analysis and initial design plan to link their communities to the state’s broadband network, said Andrew Vialpando, a spokesperson for Paramount’s mayor. Now the group has chosen to scale back its plan, cutting out six underserved cities, including Paramount, Compton and Bellflower.

“It was something we were all getting behind,” said Compton Mayor Emma Sharif. “We were excited about it. All of a sudden we looked up and said ‘Wait a minute, what happened?’ It was devastating for us. This is something I was really hoping to bring to my community.”

Similarly 40 rural counties that make up the Rural County Representatives of California came up with a joint plan to build last-mile projects in 37 jurisdictions. They weren’t expecting the state to change the plan.

The most recent change to the maps the group used for its planning happened on or around Sept. 29, the day that applications were due, said Tracy Rhine, senior policy advocate with the Rural County Representatives of California. That change means a project they hoped to build in the majority Latino, farmworker community of Greenfield in Monterey County may no longer be viable.

Both groups still submitted their grant applications by the deadline. They said they’re unsure if they’ll receive the grants and haven’t received clarity or guidance from the state Public Utilities Commission about how to modify their applications based on the middle-mile network changes.

The California Public Utilities Commission, the agency in charge of disbursing funds for last-mile projects, declined interview requests from CalMatters. It did provide a statement in response to questions.

Terrie Prosper, a spokesperson for the state Public Utilities Commission, wrote applicants got “extensive technical assistance” before the applications were due and commission staff continues to work with applicants.

In the July 21 meeting, Public Utilities Commission officials said the grants will be disbursed in the first quarter of 2024.

The Department of Technology declined CalMatters’ request to interview department officials but answered questions via email.

In order to roll out the middle-mile network in the most cost efficient way, the Department of Technology is using a mix of methods, including purchasing or leasing existing fiber optic networks, which the state would operate and maintain, along with building new infrastructure. The state so far has spent $1.8 billion on various lease, purchase and joint-build agreements that will deliver 6,500 miles of the middle-mile network.

Most of that, $1.2 billion, went to leases for existing infrastructure. The state has contracts with 10 lease providers — private sector companies, government organizations and nonprofits — covering about 4,699 miles of the network. That includes leases for infrastructure in Beverly Hills and parts of West L.A.

Advocates also say the state is underestimating the number of households lacking broadband services because agencies are relying on flawed information from service providers.

Based on such Federal Communications Commission data, less than 10% of the population, or 20 million people, lack broadband internet, Gao, of the Public Policy Institute of California, said. However reports from broadband research organizations estimate about 42 million people are underserved.

Prosper, from the Public Utilities Commission, said state and federal officials acknowledge their broadband data is flawed.

Regardless, Sharif, Compton’s mayor, said cities in the second phase are keeping an eye on the broadband funding decisions, hoping Newsom will keep his promises.

“Our cities can’t afford to be pushed aside and forgotten,” she said. “These are critical steps to closing the digital divide, and we want to make sure we are part of that and that we are being thought of.”

Source: Call Matters