Amy Tong is the State Director and Chief Information Officer for the California Department of Technology. She also serves as Chair of the California Broadband Council. She is the go-to person responsible for establishing and implementing state IT strategic plans, policies, and standards. Read below to learn about Tong's thoughts on Digital Inclusion in California.
Why is it important for the state of California to close the Digital Divide?
California has the 5th largest economy, but there are still areas that are without necessities such as access to the Internet. As a citizen of this state, one might assume that basic access to the Internet is a need that met for everybody. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The state government provides services such as health, social services, and emergency communication – basic information that should be made available to everybody in the state, but a lot of people are not able to access those channels through the Internet.
What are some of the major challenges to provide affordable broadband to all Californians?
Number one, the sheer size of our state translates to how many entities are needed to collaborate in order to overcome challenges in initiatives like funding, policy perspective, and priority perspective. As well, our federal government and local entities all have to work together in order to overcome those challenges. Today, a lot of that awareness is being raised by the work of the California Broadband Council and organizations such as the California Emerging Technology Fund, but we need to get to a place where tangible outcomes can build up momentum to push forward.
What role should the State legislature play in this effort?
The Legislature is in a very unique position because they have great access to a lot of information and speak for their constituents by elevating their needs –especially those in areas that are underserved. By elevating the priority at the state level, Legislators can be advocates for their constituents. When it comes to policymaking and bringing partners together, the state is already at the forefront working with entities such as the California Emerging Technology Fund, our federal government, and local officials -- by bringing everybody to the table.
As Chair of the California Broadband Council, what are your top goals to strengthen Digital Inclusion efforts and see that they are completed?
My top three goals to strengthen Digital Inclusion efforts are: promote broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas, ensure public institutions have broadband access, and encourage private and public relationships to support digital literacy. The close collaboration between private and public institutions is critical to ensuring citizens are ready and able to live in the digital age, ultimately, strengthening digital inclusion.
What’s next for the state of California Dept. of Technology?
We’re proud of and confident in the Vision 2020 strategic plan. The plan is simplistic, yet a logical and common-sense approach to how technology strategy in the state of California should be carried out. The plan is in place, the community support is there, there is a good governance model in place, and the current and future governing body will be able to carry the plan forward.
The Davis Enterprise
A $330 million bill package to expand broadband access and digital literacy in communities deprived of a reliable internet connection is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk after being approved by the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses.
Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, is one of the co-authors of AB 1665.
Several past efforts to increase funding to close the connectivity gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” known as the “digital divide,” were intensely opposed by the largest telecommunications and cable companies, Aguiar-Curry said.
After a three-year stalemate, this bill represents a cooperative effort between legislators of both houses and both parties, consumer advocates, and representatives from the telecommunications and cable industries to invest in broadband access and rural development.
“After years of failed efforts, I am proud that our group was finally able to break through,” Aguiar-Curry said. “I’ve been working on this issue as a local official for over a decade. I’ve watched families get their first email address, and farmworkers finally able to talk to their kids’ teachers despite their long work hours. I’ve witnessed how internet access can transform a community.
“AB 1665 will transform communities across California.”
Pam Bailey | August 9, 2017
Nonprofits and federal and state lawmakers are waking up to the fact that access to the Internet is key to building healthy economies, and that both have a critical role to play in closing the digital divide that particularly plagues rural areas.
As documented in a white paper on persistent rural poverty published by NeighborWorks America, success in higher education and employment often goes hand in hand with broadband access.
- Those looking for work will find that 60 to 70 percent of jobs are posted online. If the applicant needs to have a bachelor’s degree, that rate rises to 80 percent.
- When looking at middle-skill jobs, those that require some post-high-school training but not a four-year degree, nearly eight in 10, representing 32 percent of all labor market demand in the nation, require digital skills. Those digitally intensive middle-skill jobs have grown more than twice as fast as the other kind, and pay about 18 percent more.
Rural areas, however, lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to high-speed Internet access. According to the data collected by NeighborWorks, “45 percent of rural tracts don’t qualify as having broadband Internet, compared to 17 percent for suburban and 11 percent for urban areas.”
Fortunately, as reported by Government Technology, four bills are winding their way through the U.S. Congress that are designed to ease this disparity. Strategies range from expansion of broadband infrastructure, to reduction of implementation costs, to provision of tax incentives, to streamlining of the permitting process.
“We need to reduce the rural and urban divide in digital connectivity,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), said in a press release. “By eliminating unnecessary regulations, we can more rapidly connect rural America and deploy broadband infrastructure.”
In addition, the Government Technology piece reports that 10 states have passed their own bills to reduce the digital divide. Another 10 states have introduced such bills, and one (California) has a bill on hold.
However, nonprofits have a vital role to play as well, both in public education and in helping residents access available Wi-Fi services and understand how to benefit. For example, Eden Housing in Hayward, California, offers education in digital literacy geared to different groups, including a “Generation Exchange” program where young people teach computer skills to seniors. Now, Eden seeks to do more:
“We originally focused on educating and inspiring our residents to adopt broadband, but then we learned that for many of our residents, the monthly fees for access cause a severe hardship to the family,” explained Jennifer Reed, director of fund development and public relations for Eden. “So now, we are expanding to a portfolio-wide approach to provide access as well.”
Using a grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund, Eden surveyed residential adoption rates across its properties, identified residents’ desires and needs, forged partnerships, and created a digital literacy toolkit. With additional funding from the California Public Utilities Commission, it has set out to achieve its goal of providing free or very low-cost internet access to all of its residents within five years (ideally in each unit but in a community space at the minimum).
To date, free broadband has been extended across 11 of the properties. And it’s being used. At one of the senior-housing sites, data show that nearly 100 percent of the residents have accessed the internet compared to an average of 40 percent in other developments for seniors where free services is not yet available.
Native Americans have been hit particularly hard by this issue. Last year, the FCC reported that 68 percent of people on rural tribal lands lack access to broadband. In response, the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association has, through its Tribal Digital Village program, constructed access-point towers and connected hundreds of homes in 12 of the 17 tribal communities in San Diego County.
“It’s really an awareness thing—building up the tribal knowledge base and trying to teach the companies that when they’re passing the reservations, it’s an opportunity for revenue,” says Matt Rantanen, director of technology for the association. “[We need to] give everybody an opportunity.”
Lake County Bee
Steve Harness | July 27, 2017
Living in rural Lake County has many advantages: clean air, pleasant scenery, low traffic density, brilliantly starry night skies, and ready access to many recreational activities. I have enjoyed living here for nearly 40 years. However, in some ways we are treated as 2nd class citizens. I refer to the urban vs. rural digital divide.
It must have been a grand day in 1929 when, according to a document I found in my 100+ year old Witter Springs house, it was connected to the electrical grid. Electric lighting became available with the flip of a switch and water no longer had to be pumped by hand from the well. Bathrooms with tubs and toilets must have been considered wonders of the age. There was even the possibility of getting an electric washing machine. One thing I know the residents did was to install a set of now long disused electric wall heaters in many rooms.
I don’t know when television first became available in Lake County, but my house had a 20 ft tall roof antenna when I bought this place in 1987. As a teacher at Upper Lake High School I do recall the excitement in the 1990s as cable TV was extended west along the north shore. However, it stopped at Upper Lake, never reaching further west, so now reception at Witter Springs is pretty much restricted to satellite.
Internet access became available in the late 1990s, but only by dial up through phone lines, not nearly fast enough for streaming video. The alternative is satellite access and therein lies the problem.
According to studies made in recent years, the average household consumption of bandwidth is in the neighborhood of 190 G (Gigabytes) and growing rapidly. People with unrestricted access enjoy streaming video, streaming music and radio, exchanging photos, and spending time shopping without concern over bandwidth used. My satellite system, however, even though it has recently increased in speed, sets an upper limit of 10.3 G per month. This substantially inhibits my freedom to use what must now be considered a public utility, including access to the substitute teaching job postings on which I rely for income. I also have no cell phone access at home, a liability as one local district seems to rely chiefly on text messaging to recruit substitutes.
To make matters much worse is the advent of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 Creators edition, which leaves my computer vulnerable to updating from Microsoft whenever it is connected to the Internet. When I first installed Windows 10 it had this same feature and I clocked 2 G bandwidth consumption in the first 2 days on updates from Microsoft alone. Then I switched to Windows 10 version 1511, which allowed me to choose my time of monthly updates, as I have unrestricted access from midnight to 5 AM. This has worked OK, as long as I got up at midnight once a month to do the updating. However, this version is being retired in September and all updates will include installation of Creators.
My hope is that Lake County Broadband Solutions, as outlined in the July 8, 2017 RB article, will be up and running in my area soon with unmetered Internet access. Pending that I urge all residents of Lake County to support the Internet For All Act (AB 1665), which provides resources for addressing the digital divide problem. The map at the website shows those areas of California that are underserved and it includes much of Lake County. The Lake County’s 4th Assembly District is shown as being 11% behind California’s stated goal of 98 percent of households being connected to broadband Internet. Check out the website and urge the legislature to act.
Tell California Legislators We Need Internet for All Now! The California Legislature must pass the Internet for All Now Act, to support deployment of broadband into ...
Jake Abbott | July 3, 2017
(TNS) -- Just ask anyone in the foothills if they have trouble getting a phone signal or finding an internet provider. There's a good chance you'll have to do it in person ... they won't be able to take your call or get your email or text.
"It's awful, just terrible," said Randy Fletcher, Yuba County supervisor for the foothills district. "As soon as you hit the foothills, you lose service. Anything we can do is for the better."
It's a problem for foothills residents, as well as other rural communities throughout the state, due to the landscape and the distance between households. Smaller populations mean fewer cell towers and internet providers, Fletcher said, and it's a problem that needs to be addressed. "One of the biggest things has to do with safety. Between the sheriff's office, the fire department, or just for education, without the infrastructure, you are limited in what you can do in the foothills, and that's a big piece of the puzzle," Fletcher said.
A bill co-authored by local Assemblyman James Gallagher is looking to correct that. If approved by California lawmakers, the bill — AB 1665, also referred to as the "Internet For All Now Act of 2017" — would allocate $330 million to build new broadband infrastructure, not just in Yuba County, but in other digital-disadvantaged areas throughout the state.
Gallagher's office cited a recent UC Berkeley poll that found 87 percent of Californians have access to a high-speed internet connection at home. Of those respondents, 18 percent only had internet access through a smartphone, and the rest had broadband access through a computing device.
Another study done in April 2016 by the California Public Utilities Commission focused more on rural areas, where 43 percent of households reported internet access was unavailable, or unreliable, where they lived — a total of 424,000 households.
If it becomes law, the act would extend the soon-to-expire California Advanced Service Fund to support broadband infrastructure deployment in under-connected rural areas and disadvantaged communities.
"We look at this as a basic infrastructure issue of the 21st century," Gallagher said.
The bill's end goal is to reach 98 percent household connectivity to high-speed internet per region.
"In town, a lot of people have access to providers like Comcast, but as you get out on the periphery, there are areas that just don't have access, or at the very most they have DSL, which is not very fast and is spotty," Gallagher said.
The bill passed the state Assembly on June 1. The Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications is expected to discuss the bill on today.
Gallagher said he is hopeful the bill — which has received bipartisan support — will be passed before the California Legislature takes about a month-long recess at the end of July.
"I hope we can see something get done before the break. There is the possibility that we could have some obstacles over in the Senate, but I hope we don't," Gallagher said. "We had a pretty good coalition in the Assembly. We are going to push hard and hopefully get it signed by the governor."
San Jose Mercury News
Seung Lee | June 27, 2017
California faces a growing class of “under-connected” households that rely only on smartphones for online access, a trend that may worsen the state’s economic inequality, according to a report released Monday by UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.
In 2017, more Californians — 87 percent of the state’s households — had broadband Internet connectivity at home. But of those, 18 percent had smartphones as their only computing devices, more than double the 8 percent just two years earlier.
While smartphones provide a cheaper, more portable way to get online, their limited computing power hinders the development of basic computing skills, leaving smartphone-only households much less likely to be integrated into California’s booming tech economy, experts said.
“Our efforts are to get everybody online to minimize the inequalities in our society and economy,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, president of California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) which sponsored the study. “Internet for all now is a 21st century civil right.”
Thirty-four percent of those without broadband at home cited the expense. They also acknowledged they felt disadvantaged in developing new career skills or taking classes, according to the poll, which surveyed more than 1,600 adults in six different languages.
“There is a real desire by lower income people to get workforce skills,” said McPeak. “They have expressed to us in focus group after focus group that they know it’s important for the future of their kids but for themselves as well.”
To bridge the gap, California lawmakers wrote the Internet For All Now Act of 2017, which would invest funds into broadband infrastructure projects in low-income and rural areas. The bill passed the Assembly, 67-5, earlier this month and has moved onto the Senate.
Smartphone-only households were also less likely to use the internet for their personal benefit. For example, 78 and 74 percent of households who owned a computing device like a desktop or a laptop banked and obtained personal health information online, respectively; only 46 and 41 percent of smartphone-only households performed the same tasks.
“The population who are smartphone-only is using the device for far fewer activities,” said Berkeley IGS director Mark DiCamillo. “The downscale segment of California’s household population is the segment least likely to be connected.”
Certain demographics lagged significantly behind in owning internet access. Those who were older than 65, born outside the United States, disabled or did not graduated from high school were at least 10 percentage points likely to not have Internet at home compared to their counterparts.
When broken down by race, Latinos were the least connected. Among Latinos, Spanish-speaking Latinos only reported 70 percent with broadband access and only 32 percent had a computing device.
On June 2, Amazon announced it will open a new fulfillment center in Fresno and hire 1,500-2,500 local workers. This is good news for Fresno’s economy; it is also a sign that even in California’s agricultural center, today’s jobs are digital.
Yet Fresno is not fully wired for the future, which means too many of its citizens are unprepared for these digital jobs. According to Watsonville GIS Center’s broadbandmaps, 14 percent of the Fresno area population does not have high-speed Internet at home.
Among the population Radio Bilingue serves – Spanish-speaking farmworkers – that number is even higher. A 2016 Field Poll on broadband adoption in California reported that 31 percent of Spanish-only speakers are unconnected.
The reasons for this digital divide are twofold. First, California’s rural areas lack the necessary infrastructure for high-speed internet. An April 2017 CPUC report found that 43 percent of rural households are unable to get reliable broadband.
This is particularly true in the Valley; inside Fresno, internet access is plentiful, but in smaller towns like Parlier, Reedley and Orange Cove, broadband is unreliable and wi-fi connections are spotty.
Second, many Valley residents cannot afford the cost of a computer plus the $50-$80 monthly Internet service fees on top of paying for a smartphone and cell phone service.
Some argue that having a smartphone is enough – but kids can’t write term papers on smartphones and adults can’t upload resumes from smartphones for job applications. Smartphones also have limitations for research, learning, and information sharing – which is why at Amazon fulfillment centers, workers use internet-connected tablets, laptops and desktops to do their jobs.
The fact is high-speed internet access is as important to 21st-century economic development as electricity was to 20th-century economic development. Take the example of Irma Olguin, a 37-year-old Latina who grew up in a family of field laborers in Caruthers and who now is CEO of one of Fresno’s leading tech enterprises, Bitwise. Olguin recently told The Bee:
“When you think how unlikely it is for a rural kid from a labor background to end up as the CEO of a technology company, you just don’t see that. It doesn’t need to be an accident. We can be a lot more deliberate about creating and providing opportunities to families who want their children to succeed, or at least exposing young people to a different vision for their lives.”
Olguin oversees operations for two Bitwise divisions: the Geekwise Academy tech education and training programs and Shift3 Technologies Shift3 Technologies, which matches up local businesses that need technology services with programmers and engineers to do the work. She is part of a statewide movement to improve digital access and literacy.
The opportunities provided by companies like Amazon and Bitwise are a key reason Radio Bilingue is supporting the Internet For All Now Act (AB 1665), a bipartisan Internet infrastructure and adoption bill that aims to get 98 percent of California territories and 90 percent of California citizens connected to the digital economy.
AB 1665 is a rare piece of legislation; it is co-authored by 23 Republican and Democrat Assemblymembers and on June 1 it passed the Assembly in a 67-5 vote. The bill would extend an already working program of the California Public Utilities Commission, which has funded – through a pennies-per-month phone bill surcharge – 58 high-speed Internet infrastructure projects that have connected hundreds of communities to the digital economy. It also would support getting low-income people connected to affordable internet offers from companies like AT&T and Comcast.
The Internet For All Now Act is an economic development no brainer for California. I want the Senate to pass it, so that Fresno can be known the world over not only for its agricultural production but also for the digital expansion of our economy.
Hugo Morales is executive director and co-founder of Radio Bilingüe Inc., the national Latino public radio network based in Fresno.
San Bernardino County Sun
Paul Granillo | June 14, 2017
June 1 was a good day in California. The Internet For All Now Act, a bipartisan bill that will close the digital divide in California, sailed through the state Assembly on a 67-5 vote — thanks to co-authorship from 23 Republicans and Democrats, including Inland Empire Assembly members Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella; Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia; Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino; Jose Medina, R-Riverside; Sabrina Cervantes, D-Corona, and Freddie Rodriguez, D-Chino.
Bipartisan lawmaking is fairly rare in the Capitol. The reason is that the Internet For All Now Act (Assembly Bill 1665) is an economic development no-brainer. It extends an already working program with no new taxes that has funded 58 high-speed internet (“broadband”) infrastructure projects connecting over 100,000 households to the digital economy.
You might ask: Why is this necessary? The reason is California has an unacceptably large divide between those who have home high-speed internet and those who do not. The California Emerging Technology Fund reported in its August 2016 Field Poll that 30 percent of Californians do not have high-speed internet and a computing device at home and that 57 percent of low-income Californians are “under-connected” — either dependent only on a smartphone or completely offline. In addition, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a report in April 2017 documenting that 43 percent of rural households can’t get reliable broadband.
What this all means is that almost 12 million Californians are shut out from the digital economy. They cannot adequately apply for jobs, do homework, and get health and public services online.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently reported that colleges and universities now receive 94 percent of their applications online, up from 68 percent in 2007 and 49 percent in 2005. And the Pew Internet Research Center has shown that lower-income Americans continue to lag behind in technology adoption; the result, Pew reports, is that a technology gap between the rich and the poor is widening U.S. inequality.
This is of particular concern in the Inland Empire, where some cities and towns have inadequate or non-existent broadband infrastructure and where lower-income families struggle to keep up with the digital revolution. This was a huge motivation for Assembly members Garcia, Gomez Reyes and Medina to co-author AB1665, and it was a clear and compelling reason for Assembly members Obernolte, Cervantes and Rodriguez to come out in support of the bill. They know that individuals and businesses which don’t have high-speed internet are socioeconomically disadvantaged and those who have fast connections can compete in the 21st century.
The Internet For All Act is a $330 million, five-year bill that extends the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which is the only source of support for broadband unless the Legislature enacts a new fee or tax or does a General Fund budget allocation. My organization, the Inland Empire Economic Partnership — along with more than 100 other governmental and nongovernmental organizations — support this bill because we understand the CASF will soon be out of funds, yet 360,000 households still need to get connected to reliable broadband. We also understand that internet service providers will not put broadband in areas with low return on investment. This bill incentivizes those companies to serve 98 percent of the households in the state.
So thank you, Inland Assembly members Garcia, Obernolte, Gomez Reyes, Medina, Cervantes and Rodriguez for authoring and supporting the Internet For All Now Act. We hope your colleagues in the Senate follow your lead in closing the digital divide to help boost our economy and strengthen our society.
Paul C. Granillo is president and CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership.
Kayla Nick-Kearney | June 8, 2017
The Internet for All Now Act of 2017 has been approved with a price of $330 million by the Assembly and is moving to the Senate.
Assembly Bill 1665, which includes 23 bipartisan co-authors, extends broadband deployment to rural and low-income urban areas through the California Advanced Services Fund.
“Digital deserts,” or underserved communities, include Visalia, Tehama and Lassen, according to Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund. The California Advanced Services Fund will provide the money necessary to build out the network. The fund was rededicated in 2008 to broadband deployment.
“Before that, it was used for telephone subsidies, so it’s been collected for decades,” McPeak said.
As the telephone subsidy fund, $300 million was collected each year. In 2008, $315 million was assigned to the broadband effort.
“This is, again, the Legislature stepping up, continuing to address the digital divide, using an existing source that is a modest surcharge, a lot less than it used to be for telephone service, but giving us a tangible amount for leveraging private capital, leveraging other public dollars and other public resources,” said McPeak.
The money will be divided into three parts: $300 million will be spent on infrastructure, $10 million for resources and $20 million to get the “lowest of the low-income households online.”
“Having the technology is one thing,” McPeak said. “We actually need to use it, and then we become a lot more efficient in our economy.”
Eduardo Gonzalez and Trish Kelly | June 7, 2017
For many years, those working in food systems have used the word desert — a barren area of land where living conditions are hostile — to describe urban places that have no grocery stores. The term “food desert” has drawn crucial attention to health problems that occur where it’s a struggle to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
But the lack of access to fresh food is not the only geographic injustice in low-income neighborhoods and rural communities.
In California — and all across the country — there are “digital deserts,” places where it’s impossible to get high-speed Internet access at home and thus impossible to do homework, apply for jobs and be a full-fledged member of the digital economy. These digital deserts also prevent farmers from using Internet technology to improve efficiencies in growing crops and getting them to markets.
Can there really be digital deserts in digital-dominant California? Yes. Although significant progress has been made in recent years, 16% of Californians remain completely off line, and 14% connect only through a smart phone. Thus 30% of all California households are either unconnected or under-connected.
The reasons for this digital divide are twofold. One is our high rate of poverty. Four in 10 California residents are living near or in poverty, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. This means millions cannot afford the cost of home Internet (averaging $50 per month) plus a computer.
The other reason for the digital divide is inadequate infrastructure. As an example, broadband infrastructure grades in rural areas of Yolo County — not even 20 minutes from the Capitol of the 6th largest economy in the world – are ranked F.
The California Public Utilities Commission documented in an April 2017 report that 43% of Californians in rural areas have no reliable broadband.
The glaring fact is that California is suffering from digital deserts — from Crescent City, Redding and Tahoe City to the Delta, Stockton, Fresno and Calexico.