New CSBA-supported legislation will address infrastructure needed to close the digital divide

With the 2020–21 school year right around the corner and a state order mandating that about 90 percent of students begin the academic year solely with distance learning, there is an immediate need to close California’s digital divide. To do so, 700,000 students will need to be equipped with computing devices and another 300,000 with hotspots to connect to the internet, according to the California Department of Education.

Two CSBA-supported bills recently introduced in both houses of the Legislature would provide funding for projects to connect students and families at their homes — an issue that is particularly dire for children in rural areas often neglected by major telecommunications companies.

Assembly Bill 570 (Aguiar-Curry, D–Winters) would require the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to promote remote learning and telehealth, in addition to economic growth, job creation, and the substantial social benefits of advanced information and communications technologies. The legislation backed by 10 co-authors would also require the Public Utilities Commission, in approving CASF infrastructure projects, to prioritize projects that reach the greatest number of unserved and underserved households, among other factors. Lastly, AB 570 would establish the State Agency Direct Allocation Account and authorize the commission to award funds appropriated for various purposes that further digital access. The bill passed out of the Senate Energy Committee on a vote of 7-3.

Sen. Nancy Skinner (D–Berkeley) was among the handful of committee members whose only request was that the bill call for the provision of the fastest internet speeds currently possible, rather than the federal minimum. “I accept that we have so many areas that don’t even have service, so the federal speed is of course what we want at minimum. I think that if we are going to be investing in infrastructure, that given the circumstance we’re facing now, and given what we know about kids needs for online learning that we should be doing our very best to get that highest speed,” Skinner said.

Senate Bill 1130, (Lena Gonzalez, D–Long Beach), would require the Public Utilities Commission to develop, implement and administer the CASF program to encourage deployment of 21st century-ready communications with the goal of approving funding by Dec. 31, 2024, for infrastructure projects that will provide high-capacity, future-proof infrastructure based on current engineering and scientific information. Additionally, the commission would be required to approve projects providing such infrastructure to households in unserved areas. SB 1130 passed out of the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee on Monday by a vote of 9-3

CSBA has long advocated for the state to help local educational agencies address barriers to broadband connectivity that have left many students at an academic disadvantage in the 21st century.

Lawmakers, education agencies and organizations coming together to address gaps

Recent analysis on the U.S. digital divide by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group found that it is twice as large as previous estimates. In California, 25 percent of students lack an adequate connection and 17 percent lack an adequate device.

In the days following the closure of schools statewide in the spring, many LEAs had to scramble to secure a device for every student, as well as a hotspot for those who did not have an internet connection at home.  An additional and pressing issue that has been highlighted by Assemblymembers Aguiar-Curry and Jim Wood (D–Santa Rosa) along with Senator Mike McGuire (D–Healdsburg) is that hotspots and mobile devices are useless without internet or cellular connections.

Both SB 1130 and AB 570 are critical in addressing the lack of infrastructure in rural regions of the state. If passed, AB 570, for example, would expedite the deployment of broadband infrastructure across California. Doing so would provide a vital pathway to ensuring all children can access high-quality distance learning programs, as well as benefit the whole family through increased opportunities for gainful employment, telehealth and other services beneficial to communities.

The bills are yet another piece to the puzzle that is closing the digital divide. In addition to efforts led by legislators, CSBA and other education organizations, the CDE’s Closing the Digital Divide Task Force has been exploring other avenues to help close gaps in access.

Since the onset of the pandemic, CSBA has surveyed members on their technology needs and continues to work with the state and private-sector partners to complement collaborations that will provide devices and hotspots to students across the state.