Sierra Business Council leverages regional, state, and natural resources to launch public-private partnerships that will together improve and expand broadband access.
Access to reliable broadband has evolved into a basic necessity for everyday needs such as business operations, education, healthcare, and remote work, yet many rural parts of Californians continue to struggle with access to broadband. These pockets of unserved or underserved populations in California are missing out on what is now seen as an amenity critical to quality of life and the term “digital divide” refers to the growing challenges for rural residents who lack access to broadband.
Throughout our rural regions, connecting to broadband in the least populated areas is often cost prohibitive for internet service providers (ISP) due to sparsely populated communities and topography challenges. The largest ISPs argue that a breakeven point, let alone a profitable point, is not possible in these more remote areas. Services to those addresses beyond that middle mile area to the sparsely populated “last mile” are often bypassed. Alternative methods of accessing the internet via satellite or other modes of transmission can be less than ideal. Services that are installed in rural areas are expensive and often poor quality, meaning download and upload speeds are slow and unreliable. Beyond the rural inaccessibility issue there are also issues with affordability for disadvantaged communities.
This divide has enormous consequences. In today’s virtual work and learning environment, internet service is an imperative tool for our education, health, local economy, emergency plans, and beyond. Lack of access to broadband directly affects a student’s learning. Many school districts are financially strapped trying to deliver materials to offline students, while other families sit in school parking lots using the site’s broadband service to complete homework.
Additionally, many rural patients are not able to rely on telehealth options, often forgoing treatment or making increasingly costly trips to urban areas. Many local economic opportunities are also subject to impairment as small rural town businesses struggle with point of sale services, limiting retail opportunities and preventing people from expanding into their home office, reducing personal flexibility, and increasing the personal cost and impact on the climate due to vehicle miles traveled. Many of our rural towns’ homes are falling out of escrow as potential buyers discover they cannot access affordable broadband.
California as a whole is doing a great deal to address the digital gap and improve this situation, but this is a complicated, challenging, and costly process that involves stakeholders, lawmakers, local governments, and citizens working together in an innovative, patchwork approach. As the inequities in broadband access, and their increasingly harmful impacts have been made clear in both disadvantaged urban and rural communities over the past year, it is imperative that our decision-makers move policy towards advancing broadband for all.