California’s Digital Divide — COVID-19 And What We Do Now?

800 300 Ed Coghlan

At the California Economic Summit last November the issue of broadband for all came into sharp focus. There was broad agreement among civic, business, political and policy leaders that the state needed to move dramatically.

Governor Newsom announced at the Summit that the state would develop a Broadband for All plan and then on November 22 the Summit submitted a set of recommendations to the Administration: “Digital Equity in California: Advancing a Statewide Broadband Policy,” supported by a broad array of voices.

Momentum was underway. Money was proposed in the state budget. Finally, the issue that has plagued—and some believe has held back much of rural California and many urban areas of the state —was getting traction.

Then COVID-19 hit—and if anything, the problem became even more severe.

COVID-19 has revealed the “holes in the broadband net” as hundreds of thousands of California children couldn’t go to school online, many others couldn’t connect with their health care providers or even file for unemployment.

That’s why nearly 400 Californians joined a webinar Thursday hosted by California Forward (CA Fwd) and Valley Vision to provide a progress update on this issue that CA Fwd CEO Micah Weinberg said, “knits the whole state, rural and urban together.”

Joining Weinberg and Valley Vision Managing Director Trish Kelly were Martha Guzman Aceves, a commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, Stephanie Tom, deputy director for broadband and digital literacy at the California Department of Technology, Mary Nicely, senior policy advisor at the California Department of Education (CDE), and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry.

Trish Kelly of Valley Vision, which is a part of the California Stewardship Network, said the challenge was how California can pivot from the crisis caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency to a solution to the broadband issue.

PUC Commissioner Guzman-Aceves said she believes that broadband is a basic utility that is essential for all Californians and that industry needs to work with public agencies in areas that are either without broadband or have deficient service to find a “holistic and sustainable solution”.

Stephanie Tom warned about the danger of losing momentum on the issue due to the COVID-19 emergency and said the next meeting of the state’s Broadband Council on May 27 will continue to advance solutions to the state’s broadband imperative.

Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry, who represents all of Lake and Napa Counties, and parts of Yolo, Colusa, Solano and Sonoma Counties, said that to bridge the digital divide is not a “one size fits all” solution, noting that the need for universal connectivity for all Californians is an imperative.

CDE’s Mary Nicely said that surveys revealed that 360,000 devices were needed for California’s school children who were impacted by the closure of schools in March due to COVID-19. To put that in perspective, if all those children lived in the same city, it would be about the size of Anaheim which is the 10th largest California city.

So, the broadband issue is if anything more severe than it was last November.

As the Summit report indicated, the state needs to treat broadband as the emergency it is and make sure that all state agencies are prioritizing broadband and commit adequate resources to solving the problem.

That is where we were headed, until the COVID-19 public health emergency hit.

Now, according to the Governor’s office this week, we are faced with a $54 billion shortfall that will soak up the Rainy-Day Fund and will still see a potentially severe reduction in spending.

Yet the work on broadband will continue because, well, it must.

As PUC Commissioner Guzman-Aceves said, there is a need to build a broadband safety net that addresses the infrastructure issues in rural California and the affordability issue that impacts both rural and urban California.

Industry, new providers, local governments, state, and federal governments all have a role in the solution. The key is to bring them to the table.

CA Fwd will continue to work on the digital divide. We will be aggregating and communicating challenges and opportunities to mobilize solutions through the next California Economic Summit scheduled for December 3 and 4 in Monterey.

If you want to be a part of this process which impacts all of California, join us.

To watch the webinar, click here.


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan