Gov. Newsom signs $6B broadband bill in Traver

Rural Tulare County school is backdrop for legislation to connect low-income rural residents to high-speed internet

TRAVER – Gov. Gavin Newsom was in Tulare County last Tuesday to sign legislation at Traver Elementary School to connect low-income residents to high-speed internet in rural areas like the small, unincorporated community. 

Newsom’s signing of Senate Bill 156 creates a $6 billion multi-year investment to provide more Californians with access to broadband coverage through the construction of a state-owned, open access middle mile network and last mile projects that connect unserved households and businesses with high-speed internet.

“As we work to build California back stronger than before, the state is committed to addressing the challenges laid bare by the pandemic, including the digital divide holding back too many communities in a state renowned for its pioneering technology and innovation economy,” said Gov. Newsom. “This $6 billion investment will make broadband more accessible than ever before, expanding opportunity across the spectrum for students, families and businesses—from enhanced educational supports to job opportunities to health care and other essential services. I thank the Legislature for its partnership on this critically important step to ensuring that California’s economic recovery will leave no part of our state behind.”

The last time a governor was close to visiting Traver is when Gov. Gray Davis’ wife Sharon Davis visited the rural community in the early 2000s. Davis is also the last governor to face a recall election, although Newsom is hoping for a different outcome on Sept. 14.

Superintendent Steve Ramirez said his K-8 school was excited to serve as the site for the bill signing because Traver is one of the many local communities which struggle with a lack of internet access. Ramirez said there is no major internet service provider with infrastructure in the area, leaving most households to pay more for wireless carriers, such as Unwired or satellite services, such as Hughes Net, or exhaust the data plans on their smartphones to create a wifi hot spot.

“It leaves low-income families with astronomical bills,” Ramirez said.

Nearly nine in 10 children in the district qualify for free and reduced priced meals, meaning they live below the federal poverty line, for so many the school is allowed to offer free meals to all of its students. In summer 2020 the district issued wifi hot spots to ensure students could access their assignments online through Chromebooks and iPads but the signals were too weak to provide consistent connection.

“It was very spotty,” Ramirez said. “Our upper grades are integrating Google Classroom more and more, so this issue will continue.”

Ramirez said the lack of high-speed internet is one of the reasons his school pushed so hard to return to in-person instruction. Traver was among the first public schools in Tulare County to return last October after its school waiver was approved by Tulare County Public Health. Ramirez said about 75% of students came back to school after the waiver.

Governor Gavin Newsom signs Senate Bill 156 at Traver Elementary School.Photo courtesy of the State of California Governor's Office

The historic legislation advances the statewide broadband plan with expanded infrastructure prioritizing unserved and underserved areas. The legislation includes:

  • $3.25 billion to build, operate and maintain an open access, state-owned middle mile network—high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks.
  • $2 billion to set up last-mile broadband connections that will connect homes and businesses with local networks. The legislation expedites project deployment and enables Tribes and local governments to access this funding.
  • $750 million for a loan loss reserve fund to bolster the ability of local governments and nonprofits to secure financing for broadband infrastructure.
  • Creation of a broadband czar position at the California Department of Technology, and a broadband advisory committee with representatives from across state government and members appointed by the Legislature.

Last year, the state mobilized companies, business leaders and philanthropists through public-private partnerships to facilitate distance learning at school districts in need across the state. The effort helped connect students lacking high-speed internet or an appropriate computing device at home with donated mobile hotspots, laptops, Chromebooks, tablets and other devices. The legislation signed today takes a comprehensive and long-term approach to tackling the broadband infrastructure deficiencies still impacting rural and low-income communities, bringing the state closer to achieving affordable, high-speed broadband internet service for all communities.

About 86% of Tulare County households have access to minimum speeds of 6 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload and 83% have access to midrange speeds of 25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download but 11% don’t have any internet access.

Last year, the California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card gave Tulare County a D+. The ‘D’ grade means the county is “barely passing” with just one wireline provider that meets the report’s minimum standard of 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload speeds. Visalia, Tulare and Porterville were the only areas to reach a C grade while most of Tulare County is getting an F.

In May 2020, the CPUC reported that nearly all Californians living in urban areas have access to 100/20 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload speeds compared with less than half of rural residents. A third of rural households don’t have access to 25/3 speeds and 21.5% are still waiting for the state minimum speed of 6/1. That’s just fast enough for about three devices to check email, browse the web and watch online videos. It’s not nearly enough to stream HD content on Netflix or Hulu, between 15-25 Mbps, and doesn’t come close for 4K content for online gaming, clocking in at 40-100 Mbps. Most major ISPs at least offer 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, the threshold for the FCC to define it as broadband.

Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), a group of 37 rural county governments including Tulare County, was at the bill signing in Traver. RCRC Chair and Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless  said these investments will aid in increased connectivity and affordability for all by making it easier for more internet providers to provide faster, cheaper service throughout the state and creating opportunities for more entities to build last-mile infrastructure in more places.

“We are grateful that Gov. Newsom recognized the harm that the digital divide causes to our rural communities and the necessity of broadband access for families and businesses,” Corless said. “We are confident that this monumental investment by the State in broadband infrastructure will aid in the establishment of a more equitable system of access to opportunity and economic growth for all Californians.”

Supervisor Dennis Townsend, Tulare County’s RCRC representative, said he lives in Springville east of Porterville and has internet access through line-of-sight wireless but many of the other rural communities in his district do not. He said remote mountain communities like Camp Nelson and Ponderosa have trouble getting any internet due to their topography and communities like Ducor and Richgrove are too far from major hubs to get broadband despite being on the Valley floor.

“We’ve been calling for this for a long time but it took a pandemic and the shut down of schools for everyone to come to the table,” Townsend said. “It used to be high-speed internet was a luxury but it is becoming more like a necessity as more people work from home.”

Townsend pointed out the state’s money should begin flowing to cities about the time federal broadband money comes available, giving rural areas with little to no infrastructure more opportunities to compete projects. Townsend said the Biden administration is making funding available to study rural areas and identify gaps in broadband infrastructure. With federal funding paying for planning and state grants for installation, Townsend said rural areas may have to provide little of their own money to do major projects connecting them to high-speed internet.

“Tulare County has opted in with 28 other counties to join an application being filed by RCRC to identify regional issues and develop plans for communities,” Townsend said. “It’s nice to see some movement on this issue after years of advocacy.”

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