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.