On January 10, Governor Gavin Newsom released his proposed California state budget for 2020-2021.  The proposed budget predicts over $150 billion in revenue, which will be used to fund all of California’s state agencies and programs, including education, health care, transportation, and emergency services.  Over the next week or two, folks at Greenlining will be blogging about how specific items in the budget will impact our state’s communities of color.  For example, this post will discuss the proposed budget’s allocation of money to improve high-speed internet access and service quality across California.

Despite the fact that California is the home of the tech industry, many Californians—especially Californians of color and Californians from rural areas—lack access to reliable, affordable high-speed broadband service. For many Californians who do have broadband service, that service uses outdated technology that can only provide very slow speeds.

These disproportionate levels of broadband quality and frequent lack of high-speed internet access stem from past policies. For example, in 2013, the Legislature severely restricted the California Public Utilities Commission’s authority to regulate broadband services, and in 2017, the Legislature reduced the minimum speed requirements for providers to receive California Advanced Services Fund money—state-provided funding to pay for new broadband construction. These policies have contributed to the United States falling behind in broadband deployment—for example, right now China is building out its fiber optic network nine times faster than the U.S.

Smart Cities can bridge the digital divide

The good news is that Gov. Newsom proposed budget provides $260.9 million over the next five years for broadband infrastructure improvements and technology investments. This move indicates that the Governor’s office and the State of California are beginning to understands two things:

  1. There are significant racial and rural divides in high-speed internet access, and
  2. Low minimum speed standards for broadband subsidies have resulted in many Californians having substandard service. 

There is a lot of discussion whether $260.9 million over five years is enough for California to reach its policy goal.  My answer is a not very comforting, “it depends.” $260.9 million would go a long way towards getting high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved Californians. However, the budget isn’t just about how much money California sets aside for a specific purpose. It’s also about implementation—what specific projects that money goes to, where those projects are located, and which stakeholders benefit.

Large incumbent broadband providers are going to fight to make sure that they are the primary beneficiaries of any broadband spending.  They’ll push to get funding to provide lousy, outdated service, make it harder for smaller competitors to get funding and make it harder for communities to build their own networks. In short, they’ll put their profits ahead of the need for high-speed internet access in marginalized communities.

Building out high-speed fiber broadband networks across California would provide massive economic benefits to California households in the form of increased access to educational and employment opportunities and access to government services. Additionally, it could potentially boost California’s economy by billions of dollars.  We applaud Gov. Newsom for being a strong advocate for universal broadband service, and we look forward to working with him to create a truly connected California.

Paul Goodman is Greenlining’s Technology Equity Director. Follow him on Twitter.