Los Angeles: Ground Zero for Closing the Digital Divide
By Martha Escutia
The Los Angeles Region is an amazing epicenter of talent, artistry and innovation. But it also is ground zero for closing the Digital Divide. Fortunately, we have visionary leaders who are behind a triad of opportunities that will result in a huge win for digital equity.
Right now, almost a quarter of Los Angeles residents are stuck on the wrong side of the Digital Divide—not able to fully contribute to our creative vibrancy and economic vitality. According to a California Emerging Technology Fund Field Poll, the Los Angeles Region lags behind the state average for connected residents at home, with 76 percent of households online and 10 percent having only a smart phone to access the Internet. While smart phones are marvelous technologies for mobile access, they are insufficient for students to do their homework, inadequate to help adults acquire workforce skills, and hard to use by people with certain physical disabilities. Further, while the Los Angeles Region is 27 percent of the state’s population, 33 percent of California’s low-income people and students on free-or-reduced lunch reside here.
All of this means that there is a concentration of poverty, which must be tackled with all available strategies and tools—including affordable high-speed Internet service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and the California Legislature must act now to ensure all residents get connected to “broadband,” as high-speed Internet is called, so that they can participate in the Digital World. This is a 21st-century civil right.
Los Angeles leaders have taken a major role in fighting for digital equity. The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution introduced by President Herb Wesson and signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, calling upon the FCC to adopt an affordable Internet access rate called “Lifeline” and to encourage companies to partner with community organizations, schools, and libraries as “trusted messengers” to get low-income households online. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors under the leadership of Chair Hilda Solis unanimously approved a similar position, followed by a unanimous vote by the Los Angeles Unified School Board at the urging of President Steve Zimmer. Our State Legislators, led by Senate Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker–elect Anthony Rendon, both native Angelenos, have headed up a delegation of officials to underscore the need for all residents—including and especially the most disadvantaged—to be brought into the Digital Age. Los Angeles and California are speaking historically with a united voice and it is time for the FCC to act—the first element in the triad of opportunities.
Until the FCC approves and makes operational an affordable broadband Lifeline program, the CPUC must ensure that affordable broadband is a public benefit secured out of the pending application by Charter Communications to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks—the second element of the triad. This corporate consolidation will result in the second largest broadband provider in the country; the CPUC must require Charter to step up to contribute to digital equity, as AT&T, Comcast and Frontier have done already.
Finally, major legislation has been introduced in Sacramento called the Internet For All Now Act of 2016, which will provide essential policy and resources to finish closing the Digital Divide in our Golden State. This Act prominently plants the flag for California as a global leader in digital equity. Our Los Angeles State Legislators leaders hold the key to passing this legislation—the third element in the triad.
This is the triad for digital equity being constructed in the Los Angeles Region. The FCC, CPUC, and California Legislature have the power in their hands to ensure all residents get online now to (1) approve Broadband Lifeline, (2) secure a significant public benefit from Charter, and (3) pass the Internet for All Now Act. We must ensure that everyone has the 21st -century civil right to Internet access—because access delayed is access denied.
Martha Escutia represented Los Angeles County in the California State Senate from 1998 until 2006 and served in the California State Assembly from 1992 until 1998; she was chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications and was the first woman chair of the California Legislative Latino Caucus. Currently, she is vice president of government relations at University of Southern California.