CSBA webinar highlights digital divide challenges and solutions

School board trustees, state legislators, federal advocates, business leaders and more discussed the critical importance of universal broadband access to the state’s K-12 schools and its economic future during an April 20 CSBA webinar, Broadband for California: Connecting to Our Promise.

CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy said it is unconscionable that that all children still do not have adequate and consistent internet service. Inequitable access to technology is hindering the education of some students, particularly those in low-income or rural areas, and effectively bars families from taking proper advantage of everything from accessing telehealth, online banking and government services.

“The internet is essential for full participation in our modern society,” Billy said. “We’ve had decades to solve this problem but we’ve waited until a time of crisis. We can’t wait any longer — the time for universal broadband access is now.”

In a poll commissioned by the Education Trust-West last fall, 38 percent of low-income families and 29 percent of families of color reported they lacked reliable internet at home. In rural areas, only one-third of California households are subscribed to internet service, compared with 78 percent in urban neighborhoods, according to an EdSource analysis of data from the California Public Utilities Commission. And even in urban areas that have access to the internet, network speeds are frequently too slow to make distance learning practical.

It is crucial that all students have access to high-quality internet services no matter where they are, because with everything that schools and teachers have learned this past year as a result of the pandemic, there will likely be some aspect of technology engagement that remains, said East Side Union School District Trustee Lorena Chavez.

“Having access to internet is having a seat in the classroom,” Chavez said. “Education is never going to look the same post-pandemic. If we don’t do something with this and make this a basic utility, we are going to exacerbate the achievement gap, the opportunity gap, the haves and the have nots, and that is a problem.”

Obstacles to broadband expansion and key legislation

There are numerous reasons why expanding broadband access has been difficult even in California — home to some of the world’s largest technology companies, said Billy. Panelists spotlighted issues related to cutting through the red tape, building industry collaboration, defining quality broadband access, the inadequacy of “discounted” internet services and, importantly, technical assistance.

Earlimart Elementary School District Trustee Abigail Solis noted that in discussions about the need for new or better infrastructure in small and rural areas, the need for support is often forgotten.

In having these conversations, “we cannot forget about the need to provide technical assistance to these small districts and these communities,” Solis said. “This is new high-tech stuff that a lot of small, rural districts and communities can’t do on their own. Whenever we are asking and advocating for funding to make this happen, we cannot leave out the need for funding to provide technical assistance.”

There are currently a handful of bills that seek to expand broadband access, reflecting CSBA’s consistent advocacy for universal broadband since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One such bill, Senate Bill 4 authored by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), would require the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to coordinate with other relevant state and local agencies and national organizations to explore ways to facilitate streamlining of local land use approvals and construction permit processes for projects related to broadband infrastructure deployment and connectivity.

The bill would also secure continuous funding and implement several critically needed reforms to the California Advanced Services Fund program administered by the California Public Utilities Commission to better meet the connectivity needs of families in unserved and underserved areas across the state. Changes to the fund include making communities eligible for grants based on their true internet need, promoting deployment of high-speed broadband, and making it easier for local governments to apply for grants and finance their own infrastructure.

Gonzalez said she is more confident that these and other bills related to universal broadband access will have more support this year than in sessions past as a result of the pandemic.

“This has been an ongoing problem only exacerbated by COVID-19,” she said. “This year is different because we all see the need. We’ve seen the issue in a magnifying glass and I think everyone is ready.”

Another piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 34, known as the Broadband for All Bond Act of 2022, was introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D–Torrance). If passed, AB 34 would place a $10 billion general obligation bond on the November 2022 ballot that would expand public broadband infrastructure to address the digital divide and provide access to high-speed, affordable, reliable internet — targeting school districts and other institutions in unserved and underserved rural, urban, suburban and tribal communities.

“We all recognize that broadband infrastructure is providing the roads and the bridges of the 21st century, and we need to envision being able to provide affordable and reliable internet for all like we provide water and electricity,” Muratsuchi said. “We need to close this digital divide so that we can provide equal opportunity for all of our kids and communities throughout the state of California.”

Broadband for California: Connecting to Our Promise is available to view in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TCbnxUnPtM