California to spend $ 6 billion to bridge digital divide

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a massive spending bill that promises to bring faster internet access to rural and low-income areas where schoolchildren have struggled to learn remotely during the pandemic.

(CN) – Addressing the state’s blatant digital divide, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday signed plans for a $ 6 billion overhaul of the state’s outdated broadband internet infrastructure.

From an elementary school in one of California’s major agricultural regions, Newsom lamented the state’s past failures to improve internet access and said the funding is intended to give children an equal chance of s flourish in the digital age.

“We’ve been talking about the lack of broadband access for most of our lives and yet you just sit there and wonder ‘What’s wrong with us? “,” Newsom said at a signing ceremony in Tulare County. “You weren’t inherently born a coder because you grew up in Silicon Valley rather than Central Valley; it is a question of expediency.

California Democrats – who claim qualified majorities in both chambers and each of the state’s constitutional agents – and Republicans rarely agree on big ticket items, but in this case, they have decided that better access to The internet is essential to tackle the state’s growing income inequalities.

Lawmakers announced the landmark deal last week and Senate Bill 156 was unanimously approved three days later despite opposition from the telecommunications industry, which repeated its usual warning that the government intervention could stifle innovation and competition.

While similar broadband funding proposals have stalled in recent years, industry concerns have been quelled in part by an incident outside a Taco Bell restaurant in Salinas, California.

In what has become an iconic photo, a photojournalist captured two elementary school students on the ground, huddled in front of laptops doing their homework as two masked employees watch. The shocking photo of kids using the fast food restaurant’s free Wi-Fi has gone viral and has been credited with spurring lawmakers to act.

State Senator Lena Gonzalez said the funding would benefit both rural and urban students, noting that thousands of students in her Southern California district were plagued by poor internet speeds over the course of the year. the previous school year.

“Today is the time for us to take the turn,” said Gonzalez, D-Long Beach. “Every part of the state will be affected by these dollars.”

With Tuesday’s signing, funding for the broadband expansion is formally incorporated into the $ 262 billion 2021-2022 budget which has been replenished in dozens of separate bills in recent weeks.

The main part, $ 3.25 billion, will be used to contract with a private entity to build most of the broadband fiber optic network, with an additional $ 2 billion to complete the “last mile” and connect. homes and businesses to the new main line. The package also includes $ 750 million to help municipalities and nonprofits fund local broadband improvements.

The $ 6 billion will be spread over the next three years, more than half of which will come from California’s share of the 2021 federal bailout act. Under the historic plan, underserved communities will be prioritized, especially areas where internet download speeds above 25 megabits per second are not currently available.

Newsom praised state lawmakers for pushing back industry lobbyists in a bipartisan fashion and acknowledged Congress for embracing global pandemic relief.

“To the elected officials who supported federal ownership, thank you,” Newsom said.

To ensure transparency on massive grants, Newsom and lawmakers tasked the California Public Utilities Commission to identify underserved areas and give the green light to priority projects. The bill also creates a “broadband czar” to be appointed by the governor as well as an advisory committee of nine members.

Nonprofits and digital rights groups have warmly applauded the broadband framework.

“The pandemic has proven what we have known for decades – we could no longer afford a Californian to remain disconnected from essential services like telehealth, distance learning, job training, e-commerce, healthcare interventions. emergency and countless other critical resources, ”said Arnold Sowell. Jr., executive director of NextGen Policy.

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation has encouraged local leaders to take advantage of the grants and control their “own fate.”

“The State of California will no longer simply bow to the whims of AT&T and cable for broadband access, now every community has the ability to choose their broadband fate,” he said in a commentary. Press release.

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