We Must Bridge the Rural Digital Divide
The Fresno Bee
By Shelby Gonzales | August 4, 2016
For the past decade, residents of Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties in California’s Central Valley have waited for high-speed internet access.
We cheered when the state Legislature created the California Advanced Services Fund to pay for the laying of fiber-optic cable in rural areas. And we applauded when that fund spent $46 million on the CENIC-CVIN project connecting more than 200,000 households and public institutions across the Central Valley. (CENIC-CVIN is the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California together with its private-sector partner the Central Valley Independent Network.)
But we are alarmed that the fate of CASF is uncertain. Some legislators don’t seem to understand the reasons for the infrastructure costs of high-speed internet – and they don’t seem to understand what happens when people find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Nor do they seem to care that in California, 47 percent of rural households still do not have access to reliable and fast internet – far from the legislative goal of 98 percent.
Here’s what the wrong side of the digital divide looks like in the Valley:
In Farmersville, a city of 10,000 in Tulare County, AT&T decided last year to reduce its footprint, leaving half of the city without coverage. High-speed fiber-optic cable is literally sitting across the street from City Hall, but Farmersville doesn’t have the funds to connect to it.
Its current internet speeds are also dangerously slow; Police Department body cams take 12 to18 hours to download, raising public safety concerns.
Farmersville also wants to open a public library with the 21st-century service of broadband, so students can do their homework and apply for college, and adults can apply for jobs and health insurance. But again, the funding mechanism that has worked best for rural Californians is out of money.