Local Governments Must Lead the Way In Bridging the Digital Divide
A Conversation with Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo
Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo met recently with CSAC Communication Manager Sara Floor to share his thoughts about supporting AB 34, the Broadband Bond Bill, and his ongoing efforts to increase high speed internet access across the state. The following are edited comments from their discussion.
Millions of Californians are without internet access, a deficit we’ve known about for some two decades. Why so much attention right now?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown a bright spotlight on the digital divide here in California. Here in East Salinas, in Monterey County, an image of two little girls sitting on the sidewalk outside a fast food restaurant went viral. It put a human face to what we all knew what was occurring for so many children, all across the country. Sometimes it takes an image of our most vulnerable children having to sit outside to just do their classwork to serve as real examples for policy makers to see a crisis.
But as the months have gone on, we’ve also realized that access to internet and broadband has been an issue for all Californians including our seniors who now need to connect with their doctors and family. And now we’ve got parents who are working from home, and multiple children in a household trying to access internet service— it really shows how many households don’t have the service needed to have multiple family members connecting and doing the work that’s needed.
Why has California been so slow to adopt broadband and how can we bridge the divide?
It’s been a national embarrassment that in the technology capitol of the world, which California is, that we haven’t addressed the digital divide long ago. We have some of the best minds and some of the best research institutions and universities, but it really takes a will to be able to put the resources forward.
Resources are needed to expand access, expand fiber and the infrastructure. Some of the laws were crafted in ways that I think hindered progress from being made. There have been some structural barriers; Legislative barriers that need to be fixed that have really slowed down progress. We need a change at the Federal Communications Commission because we should be regulating Internet as if it were a utility. Just as important as light and gas and water, internet access is that critical in peoples’ everyday lives.
From here forward, I think funding collaboration should be encouraged. If, for instance, in Salinas where we have all of our school districts, the city of Salinas and the County of Monterey came together, we would love to partner in a project where all the local governments are sharing in the costs, they all participate in the planning and the permitting- I think that might be a way to go in the future with some of these projects.
I think through local government collaboration- Schools, Cities and Counties- we would be able to do a lot more and the burden wouldn’t fall on any one local government (entity). Here in Monterey County, there’s a willingness to collaborate that once wasn’t there before. And I think that the State government could help incentivize that type of multi-local government collaboration.
What are the consequences of a Broadband Bond or legislative reform not moving forward?
It’s a moral imperative. I think this (broadband) is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time. When you talk about access to a quality education for our children, when you talk about our communities most in need, I think this is an imperative that we have to focus on. And even the Broadband Bond Bill will take some time because it will be put perhaps on the 2022 gubernatorial ballot, that’s still a long ways away and we know that the need is now. That’s why some of the reforms of the programs, I think that will be able to move a little bit more quickly.
If a bond is not passed this year, we won’t have another opportunity until 2024. We know that there has to be a sense of urgency. The moment is now, with all of the attention, all of the conversations. The Assembly and the Senate held two informational hearings in October and this is the time for the Governor and the Legislators to act. I know there are always going to be some stakeholders who might push back on this legislation. Some reforms to the state programs have been proposed for years, and they just haven’t gotten anywhere. I hope that this year, our state Legislators will have the courage to move forward and do what is right for our communities. The last few months of this pandemic have really showed us that the time is now and we cannot wait any further.
Many think broadband access is a rural issue. How does it impact or intersect with Urban and Suburban counties?
Certainly there’s a recognition that many rural areas have been struggling for years to have the most basic services. We know that there are large pockets of need in the Urban and Suburban areas. In areas like Los Angeles and Oakland, there are enormous numbers of residents who lack internet services. So that’s why the early conversations have garnered interest from Legislators representing all areas of California. Both the urban, suburban and the rural areas, and it even crosses party lines. My excitement is to see that among elected officials, despite party affiliation, they’re making addressing the digital divide a top priority because they understand that it impacts all of their constituents and all their residents are struggling. This is nothing new, it’s gone on for years. It took this pandemic, unfortunately, to really move elected officials to act.
But what I’m most excited about is that there’s interest from local governments, from the School Boards, to the County Supervisors, to City Council Members, that are excited about partnering with each other at the local level. And I think that local governments are the best partners with the state to actually implement projects that address the digital divide. The State should provide the funding available, but it’s going to be the local governments leading the implementation projects that will end the digital divide once and for all in California.