The Digital Divide – Bringing Broadband to The Rural Sierra

Picture of Kari Sinoff

Kari Sinoff

Project Manager

Issues of inequity frequently hit our most vulnerable populations the hardest. We have witnessed this daily through the effects of climate change, racism, and mortality rates from COVID. Similarly, lack of access to broadband can disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged communities. Rural areas, economically disadvantaged or not, also are disproportionately impacted by the widespread need for reliable and affordable internet. 

What is the digital divide? 

Broadband access has evolved into a basic need for all, yet many Californians have struggled with access to broadband in rural regions for years. 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. 

California is a geographically diverse state and here in the Sierra, we’re blessed with mountainous terrain, dense forests, and beautiful granite slopes. Unfortunately, the remote, rugged landscape we treasure can also create a roadblock to basic internet service.

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. Today, 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. Those students who do not have access to on-line learning at home are at risk of being held back; “A child who misses 18 or more days of school in a year is often held back to repeat the grade,” and due to school closures and shelter-in-place orders caused by COVID-19, “many students have already missed twice that amount,” according to 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. 

The digital divide affects access to healthcare, too. Many rural patients are not able to rely on telehealth options, often forgoing treatment or forced to make 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. 

What is being done? 

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. Bridging the digital divide is a many-year, multi-effort, layered process that has been in the works for some time now. We are slowly closing this gap. Both the State of California and the FCC have set a connectivity rate of no less than 98% of all households by 2022. Both of these agencies provide funding through various grants to advance the connectivity process. 

SBC’s role in increasing rural Broadband

Supporting the expansion of broadband deployment into all homes is a vital element of achieving social equity, economic development, and environmental resiliency. SBC manages the Gold Country Broadband Consortium, which is funded through a CPUC CASF grant. The consortium’s role is to collaborate with the CPUC, ISPs, stakeholders, local governments, and consumers to identify and prioritize cost-effective strategies and install CASF infrastructure broadband projects from the last mile to the home.

What You Can Do to Help?

First, remind your representatives how important it is to fund broadband initiatives like the one announced by Governor Newson at the CA Forward Economic Summit in 2019. While the Summit’s call for a statewide Broadband Action Policy remains urgent and unfilled, stakeholders from all over the state are in the process of renewing and reissuing this call to action. Additionally, Tony Thurmond, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Digital Divide Task Force are trying to close the digital divide by encouraging internet service providers (ISPs) to offer free guest access to all California students to address challenges in economic disadvantaged communities. 

Second, attend your local County Board of Supervisor and City Council meetings and insist that current policy be updated with 21st century broadband protocol such as “Dig Once” policies, and encourage muni/private partnerships to allow ISPs to access public right of ways, poles, or buildings to reduce infrastructure costs. Take a look at Nevada County’s Broadband Strategy for examples of what some policy updates look like. You can also find out who your local ISPs are and support their efforts to apply for CASF and RDOF infrastructure grants. If you, or your friends, have poor internet service please contact your regional broadband consortia to report pockets of unserved or underserved areas. Your local consortia will provide support and a link to the CPUC CalSPEED test. This is important because both the FCC and CPUC collect data of households served, which is based on a flawed reporting system, counting coverage to an area even if it is only a single home in a census block that has access to broadband. The CPUC is fully aware of this under reporting problem and is currently collaborating with each consortia to track real-time data and update the GIS mapping census blocks as information is gathered.  Find and contact your regional California consortia today. They want to hear from you.

For more information about the ongoing various CPUCs digital divide grant funded opportunities, visit CPUC CASF Information. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is currently beginning the pre-application process for distributing $20.4 Billion in infrastructure grants to ISPs across the US.  Information can be found at RDOF.

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