California must not return on its promise of broadband for all

Three years ago, California did something truly remarkable and forward-looking by passing historic laws that provided a record $6 billion to offer equitable and reasonably priced high-speed broadband service to all residents.

The aim of the multi-year investment was to shut the digital divide by constructing the country's largest middle-mile and last-mile high-speed broadband web project.

However, with the state facing a record budget deficit of $44.9 billion this 12 months, Governor Gavin Newsom plans to chop this system he previously promoted by $2 billion.

California lawmakers must not back down from this commitment. We must proceed this investment and consider a state bond, because the legislature did in 2021, to totally fund and complete the unfinished work.

I actually have been invited to talk on the bill signing ceremony in July 2021. Senate Bill 156 with Newsom at Traver Joint Elementary School in rural Tulare County. The landmark package included $3.25 billion to construct a free-to-access, state-run “middle-mile” network, $2 billion for “last-mile” broadband connections to homes and businesses, and $750 million for a loan default reserve fund to assist local governments and nonprofits finance additional broadband infrastructure.

The California Department of Technology immediately went to work mapping the ten,000 miles of broadband fiber optic infrastructure, called the Statewide Middle Mile Network Map, after receiving public input from across the state.

But because of inflation and rising construction costs, the initial funding was barely enough to finish 7,800 of the promised 10,000 miles. Last August, the Department of Technology included the remaining miles in a “Phase 2” portion of the plan, subject to future funding. Digital equity organizations soon raised alarms concerning the plan, which delayed investment in low-income communities like parts of South Los Angeles, East Oakland, the Central and Coachella Valleys, and even in my very own Monterey district.

In response, the Newsom administration pledged to support full funding for all 10,000 miles and allocated an extra $1.5 billion in his budget proposal proposed in January. Of that $1.5 billion, $250 million could be included in next fiscal 12 months's budget and the remaining $1.25 billion could be included within the 2025-26 budget. Many saw this move because the governor making good on his promise to get all the promised work across the finish line.

However, when Newsom's May budget revision was released, the $1.5 billion was eliminated entirely, dismaying many across the state. Additional broadband funding for last-mile projects and the loan loss provision were cut, for a complete of $2 billion in cuts.

This is an unacceptable step backwards, considering that over two million Californians still lack web access. Even amongst those with access, 15.4 million Californians are still trapped in single-provider monopolies, lots of them from low-income, Latino, African American, Indigenous and rural communities.

As a former state legislator who served through the severe budget deficits that followed the Great Recession, I definitely understand that the fiscal situation may be very difficult this 12 months. But California has promised to expand broadband for all, and we must complete the whole 10,000 miles as quickly as possible and never let unconnected or underserved communities wait.

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