Coalition wants California to spend billions to close the digital divide

Bonds

California will have extensive resources to improve its high-speed internet connectivity if a coalition of statewide organizations gets its way.

The cross-sector coalition penned a letter to California lawmakers asking that they include $8 billion in one-time funding in the fiscal 2021-22 budget to improve the state’s high-speed broadband infrastructure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of reliable internet connections as students learned from home and as the use of telehealth services increased as health systems struggled under the onslaught of coronavirus patients.

“Access to reliable internet is as essential to modern life as electricity or indoor plumbing,” said Ed Valenzuela, a Siskiyou County supervisor and first vice president of the California Association of Counties. “Statewide investment in broadband is long overdue and will ensure equitable access to public health, public safety, education, entrepreneurship and economic opportunities regardless of geography or population.”

The coalition sent a letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, (pictured), and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon requesting $8 billion for broadband.

Milken Institute

The funding request comes as state lawmakers are already contemplating legislation, including a measure that would place a $10 billion bond measure to fund broadband on the November 2022 ballot. President Joe Biden also included a $100 billion proposal to expand broadband in rural areas in his $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan unveiled this week.

The coalition asking for the funding includes the California Association of Counties, the California Association of School Business Officials, the California Hospital Association, California Forward Action Fund, California School Boards Association, Rural County Representatives of California, Small School Districts’ Association and the Urban Counties of California.

The coalition based its funding request on the findings in a report commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission that found the cost of building fiber optic connections to every unserved building and house in the state would cost $6.8 billion. It would cost another $1.2 billion for devices, digital skills training and accessibility features so that Californians could use the broadband services in schools, homes and businesses.

The coalition contends that its funding request complements, rather than competes with the bills pending in the Legislature.

Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, and Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, introduced companion bills in December, Assembly Bill 14 and Senate Bill 4, to improve the state’s broadband network.

“The heartbreaking reality is that 1 in 8 California homes still do not have internet access and communities of color face even higher numbers of students and families who remain disconnected,” Aguiar-Curry said in a statement.

No students should be worried about having to visit a neighbor’s house, fast-food restaurant or park to access the internet to do their homework, Gonzalez said.

The bills would replace a surcharge instituted in 2017 and expected to collect $330 million between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2022 to fund broadband infrastructure with a $0.23 per line monthly charge of unspecified amount or duration. The governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development would be required to work with state and local agencies to streamline local land use approvals and construction permits to speed approvals for broadband projects.

The legislation also creates the Broadband Bond Financing and Securitization Account to issue debt — and encourages the funding be used to match federal funds.

Both bills are scheduled to be heard in committee two weeks from now.

A separate bill, Assembly Bill 34, introduced by Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Livermore, would place a $10 billion bond on the November 2022 ballot to expand access to highspeed internet.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief longstanding health disparities that can no longer be ignored,” said Carmela Coyle, president and chief executive officer of the California Hospital Association. “As we build for the future of health care, one that will increasingly rely on new technologies like telehealth, it’s vital that all communities have equitable access to these new methods of care.”

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