Three ways to bridge California’s digital divide

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Not the best way to solve transportation problems either.

I was at the state assembly’s select committee on the digital divide in California on Tuesday, and offered my comments…

Good morning. My name is Stephen Blum, my company is Tellus Venture Associates, in Marina, in Assemblyman Stone’s district. I’m a broadband development consultant and a member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium. I work for several cities and other regional broadband consortia in California, in both urban and rural areas. I see the divide every day.

I’d like to make three points. First, existing broadband subsidy programs are very much appreciated, but they also are uncoordinated and often work against each other. One example is the money given to schools to upgrade broadband service, both by the federal government and the State of California. The way those programs work now, schools are reimbursed for fiber optic networks to connect campuses. That’s a good thing. But the planning is strictly siloed. The money can only be used to connect schools, and only in the most direct way possible.

It’s as if schools built roads for school buses. What we’d get under the same rules are eight lane freeways leading to schools, while everyone else drives on gravel roads. And only school buses could use those freeways, unless someone else pays to put in extra lanes.

My second point has to do with standards. The federal Connect America Fund will be spending nearly $600 million to upgrade broadband service in rural areas in California. The California Advanced Services Fund, a state program, will also provide hundreds of millions of dollars. Under the federal program, rural service levels are set at 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The Californian service standard is 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up. In other words, infrastructure built by one program wouldn’t necessarily meet the standards of the other – failing on either upload or download speeds – and in theory could lead to two overlapping projects, neither meeting the 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up standards that the FCC says is the minimum needed by people in urban areas. If the two programs were coordinated, there would, in many cases, be ample money to build systems that meet that higher standard. It’s a standard that’s minimal for people in cities but reckoned too luxurious for rural residents.

Finally, we have to look at the legacy government granted monopolies that are strangling rural areas. One example: Verizon has a legacy phone system that serves Taft, in Kern County. All you can buy there is plain old phone service. No DSL. Another example: Charter Communications has the cable franchise for the Salinas Valley. Just to the north, in Watsonville, for $70, you can get 200 channels of digital TV, with a DVR thrown in, 60 Mbps broadband service and unlimited long distance calling. A few miles south in Gonzales, where household incomes are ten to twenty thousand dollars a year less than Watsonville, which is not a rich community to begin with, all you can buy is 36 channels of 1980s style analog TV for $94 a month.

This kind of redlining of low income rural communities by incumbent telephone and cable companies has to end.

Thank you very much.

Full disclosure: by the time my turn to speak came, it was three hours into the hearing and well past noon. Like most of those still waiting, I opted to submit my comments in writing. Never be the last guy standing between decision makers and lunch: the decision isn’t likely to go your way.