Looking back over the last year and a half, Californians have endured an enormous amount of uncertainty in the midst of a pandemic that is refusing to go away. As schools were closed with distance learning taking its place, the lack of internet access by our schoolchildren has been a continual concern for parents, school districts, and public policy makers alike. This year, the Legislature has made significant progress on this front, spending billions in the state budget to increase broadband statewide.
Unfortunately, our communities are disproportionately affected by the lack of connectivity throughout this pandemic. A report by filterbuy.com found that surrounding areas of Visalia and Porterville have the fifth lowest percentage of households with internet access in all midsize cities (350,000-999,999 people) throughout the United States. It found that 84% of households in our region have internet access compared to 89.1% nation-wide. This is unacceptable and clearly hurts our students, who have already struggled under remote learning.
In July, Governor Newsom signed a budget bill, SB 156, which includes a $6 billion multi-year investment to expand access to broadband internet. Specifically, it will provide $3.25 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for “middle-mile” broadband infrastructure, $2 billion for “last-mile” broadband infrastructure to provide families and businesses in unserved and underserved communities to connect with local networks, and approximately $750 million to help local governments and non-profits gain broadband access.
This will be a huge boon to our communities and other rural areas throughout the state. Unbelievably, more Californians are disconnected than any other state in the country. Currently, more than 673,000 households statewide have no high-speed broadband connection. Unfortunately, it took the coronavirus pandemic to nudge the Legislature to make broadband a priority, despite attempts by myself and other lawmakers’ to fight for more broadband access and improvements over the last several years.
As more of our communities start having internet access in the months and years to come, greater connectivity will help provide more educational support to our students as well as greater job and economic opportunities for many of our folks in the Valley. This is good news but there is no doubt that this investment was long overdue. Our state has been flush with money in recent years and has enjoyed a $76 billion budget surplus this year. Given our state’s strong economic position, there is no excuse why the Legislature hasn’t done more to provide sufficient resources to California communities with no internet connectivity.
I am hopeful that the Valley will soon see results as this new funding goes towards building the necessary broadband infrastructure to connect more of our families and small businesses to the internet. I remain committed to ensuring that the state fulfills its obligation to our unserved communities and provide real solutions to broadband expansion.