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.