Rural residents are left without internet access

11% of Tulare County residents are too remote to get internet access, many more don’t know they qualify for free or discounted rates for service

By Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – Terrance Rodgers doesn’t live in Tulare County, but he has been fighting for parts of California like it for the last five years.

As economic development officer for the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), Rodgers has spent much of that time advocating to get internet access up to speed for the 37 rural county governments his organization represents.

“This creates an inequality among Californians that don’t have any options for internet access,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers is also one of those Californians struggling with slow internet speeds. Based in downtown Sacramento, Rodgers’ office at the RCRC headquarters has some of the fastest internet speeds in the state. But since the Governor’s March 19 executive order to shelter in place, Rodgers has been working at home in Newcastle, Calif., about 33 miles northeast of the capitol in Placer County. The rural area has long struggled with internet access as Rodgers and his family share an internet connection that can barely support emails with large files if one other person is online at the same time.

Rodgers’ situation is the perfect example of the digital divide between urban and rural areas in the state. The City of Sacramento has a B+ when it comes to broadband infrastructure while Rodgers home gets an F+, according to the annual California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card released last month. The report provides an overall grade of available broadband capacity for the entire county which takes into account broadband access for nearly every city and unincorporated area.

“Even before COVID-19, the infrastructure was absolutely insufficient,” Rodgers said.

The report gave Placer County, Where Rodgers lives, a D- overall, slightly better than the state average of C- and a grade point above Tulare County’s 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.

Surrounding counties didn’t fare much better with Kern and Kings counties receiving a D+ and D respectively. Inyo County to the east got the worse possible grade of F. Fresno had the highest grade among south valley counties with a C- thanks to Fresno’s status as the technology hub for the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Buffering service

The lack of broadband capacity was glaringly apparent after nonessential businesses shuttered, school campuses closed and private and public sector employees were relegated to working remotely. Parents working from home had to share their internet capacity with children doing homework.

When the county’s largest school district, Visalia Unified, announced its first round of distance learning curriculum on March 30, the district quickly learned many of its students do not have internet access, or enough access, at home. For its second round of packets released on April 14, school district officials planned a two-tiered distribution at its sites and district office to provide printed material to the two-thirds of parents who requested it. Even that didn’t end up being enough as parents at the end of the line went home empty-handed.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has set a goal of providing 98% of California households with minimum internet speeds of 6 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload. 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. It’s a decent benchmark for a typical family as it supports 10 devices running apps, streaming video, video conferencing, while listening to internet radio. The top of the line for residential service in Tulare County is 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

Earlier this month, the CPUC reported that nearly all Californians living in urban areas have access to 100/20 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. Tulare County is faring a little better than the rest of rural California with 86% of households having access to minimum speeds and 83% having access to midrange speeds.

“If another third of the workforce were forced to work from home, we would barely make it,” Eduardo Gonzalez said. “In the Valley, many people are just trying to get service.”

Gonzalez is the interim executive director of the Office of Community and Economic Development. More importantly, he leads the San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium, the organization advocating for more access to broadband in Tulare County and eight other Valley counties.

Internet service providers (ISPs) seemingly did their part. Tulare County’s largest providers all offered free or discounted rates to low income households when the pandemic began. AT&T, Charter/Spectrum and Comcast/Xfinity offered 60 days for free, followed by a low monthly rate between $9.95 (Comcast) and $17.99 (Charter). Frontier didn’t offer two months for free and instead offered a monthly rate of $19.99. These providers as well as Tulare County’s less familiar providers – EarthLink, HughesNet, Viasat (formerly Exede), and Oacy’s Technology in Porterville – promised to suspend disconnections of internet service during the pandemic as part of the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. The only ISP in the county that did not sign the pledge as of press time was Fresno-based UnWired Broadband.

But many low-income residents eligible to receive the offers were unaware of them, according to a report released last month by the California Emergency Technology Fund (CETF). The organization’s 2019 Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption stated that only 30% of California households eligible for reduced-cost affordable home Internet service are aware of the offers—and, half of those who are aware don’t trust the ISPs. Focus groups comprised of low-income residents revealed that families with only a smartphone periodically buy relatively-expensive data plans (Internet access) so their children can do their homework; and they end up paying more for data than they would if they were subscribers to an affordable offer.

With 7 in 10 eligible households unaware that they qualify for reduced-cost home Internet service offers, the report said ISPs need to increase advertising (including a telephone number and not just a website), especially through community and ethnic media channels. Partnerships between ISPs and “trusted messengers” (school districts, energy utilities, assistance programs such as CalFresh) to notify eligible households by mail are very effective, especially if local nonprofits are engaged as partners to help low-income households sign up for the subscription. ISPs also need to train their call center personnel to sincerely assist low-income residents by informing them about the interim free and affordable offers for which they are eligible without upselling them and failing to disclose future costs of market-rate plans.

Slow progress

CETF president and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak said providers are doing well with what they have but there is little movement on expanding into new areas. That’s the case in rural areas like Tulare County where 11% of Tulare County households, or about 44,000 people, don’t have access to basic internet service even if they can afford it.

“I’m very familiar with Tulare County and their struggles,” McPeak said.

She describes internet access as a pipeline flowing information between homes, businesses and government. The pipeline is strong at the connection points, where it intersects with residences and those providing the service, called first and last mile infrastructure, but weakest in the middle where it lacks support, known as middle mile infrastructure.

Middle mile is the initial pipeline that connects a community to a mainline before spoking out service to homes and businesses. Most of the middle mile infrastructure in rural areas uses copper wire compared where as urban areas that use fiber optic wire, which is more durable, more reliable and offers near limitless capacity.

“Getting fiber optic to every home is my goal,” McPeak said. “The CPUC’s goal was set more than a decade ago. You can’t compete in today and tomorrow’s economy without internet access. It’s a part of everything we do.”

And that’s if you live in an area that has wireline access, where your home is connected to a service through underground or overhead cables. More remote rural areas rely on a series of towers bouncing signals to and from your home, known as fixed LTE wireless, or through a satellite dish. The investment of building new towers, many of which face legal challenges for environmental reasons, makes adding new communities through LTE prohibitively expensive for the provider. And it’s not just one tower. LTE is a line of sight technology, meaning towers can only transmit to the horizon and must avoid interference issues from trees and mountains.

Satellite providers make services prohibitively expensive for the consumer, often double the cost of cable and LTE services.

“While consortiums in urban areas are fighting for 5G speeds, in the Valley we are fighting for infrastructure,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t even have the basics in some areas.”

ISPs would argue that anyone with a data plan on a smartphone has access to the internet, which can generate its own wifi hotspot transmitting to other devices. But that doesn’t take into account the cost of the wifi and data plan. Using a hotspot for a significant amount of time can increase the bill by $30-$40 for every 2 gigabytes of data used, or about nine hours of video chat per month.

“People struggling to pay their bills can’t afford $50 for a phone service and another $50 for internet,” he said. “They will have to choose between a phone or wifi.”

Frozen internet

Once middle mile infrastructure is extended to a community, it is the Gonzalez’s job to get people to sign up for the service by taking advantage of programs and offers that fit their budget. Instead of a sales person trying to upsell someone on a faster, more expensive plan than what they need, Gonzalez said the consortium coordinates outreach to make sure community members understand what is being offered, how much internet they need and how much it costs. The number of residents who sign up after internet becomes available are known as adoption rates. Tulare County’s adoption rate is just 62.4% compared with the state’s 80.2%.

“The important thing is to get people signed up by giving them the right information to make the right choices for their home,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez spends a lot of time thinking about Tulare County which has three of the state’s 10 communities most in need of help when it comes to signing up low income residents for available internet service, according to the CPUC. The city of Lindsay has the lowest adoption rate in the state with only 2% eligible households signing up for internet service. Ivanhoe had the fourth lowest rate with a quarter of homes and Earlimart’s rate was just over one-third, and ninth place on the list.

CETF is calling for ISPs to improve their affordable offers to low-income households by following a 10-step plan including:

  1. Offer interim free service to all prospective customers, including low-income households.
  2. Train customer service call centers to screen for customers eligible for other programs such as the CalFresh and then enroll them for free or discounted programs.
  3. Prohibit upselling low-income customers to higher-priced packages.
  4. Automatically qualify every household in schools where 70% of students are eligible for the National School Lunch Program (referred to as “auto-enroll”).
  5. Don’t make the customers wait while verifying eligibility in low-income programs and require them to provide that information by the end of the school year.
  6. Allow existing customers on higher-rate plans who qualify for affordable offers to switch immediately.
  7. Accept multiple eligible households with the same residential address to sign up for the affordable offers. (Given the cost of housing, it is increasingly common that multiple families are sharing the same dwelling unit.)
  8. Increase advertising significantly for the affordable offers with a telephone number for prospective customers. Use community and ethnic media to advertise in-language and in-culture to reach the most digitally-disadvantaged.
  9. Expand staffing, including Spanish-speaking representatives, at the call centers to decrease wait times for customer service.
  10. Collaborate with and fund local nonprofits viewed as “trusted messengers” and “honest brokers” to conduct outreach in-language and in-culture to digitally-disadvantaged communities and to assist unconnected low-income households through the sign-up process.

For more information on how you can take advantage of programs near you, contact Eduardo Gonzalez by calling 559-278-0517 or emailing [email protected].

There may be some movement on adding new communities this summer when a two-year old freeze on communities will briefly cease allowing ISPs to compete for the area. Under the current rule, Gonzalez said ISPs could provide a single home of a rural neighborhood with service and then had the right to refuse other providers from competing for service in that community. In July, the CPUC will reopen those areas for any provider before settling back into another cycle.

“They’ve basically been able to hold it hostage for two years,” Gonzalez said. “We are trying to change that rule at the CPUC level.”

Because ISPs are not public utilities, they are only loosely regulated by the CPUC. Unlike electricity, gas and water providers that are heavily regulated, the CPUC does not have direct authority over internet providers. Gonzalez argues that internet access is just as essential as traditional utilities so it should be available to everyone.

“We’ve been pushing for several years for California to make them a public utility,” Gonzalez said. “Right now, all the CPUC can do is ask them for things.”

Uploading Funds

The CPUC isn’t just asking, it’s also putting its money where its mouth is. Last week, the CPUC announced it will make $25 million from the California Teleconnect Fund available for hotspots and Internet service for student households. School districts will be able to apply to receive 50% discounts on the cost of hotspot devices and on monthly recurring service charges until Sept. 30, 2020. Rural, small, and medium-sized districts will be prioritized.

The announcement was part of a larger news conference by Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing a massive public-private partnership that resulted in over 70,000 laptops, Chromebooks and tablets and nearly $5 million for additional devices, internet access and distance learning programs CDE received from technology corporations and charitable foundations.

The news came on the heels of State Superintendent Tony Thurmond’s creation of a new task force to close the digital divide for students, and therefore households, which lack access to the internet and devices on which to access it. Thurmond said one in five students in California lack high-speed Internet or an appropriate computing device at home.

“COVID-19 is a public health crisis in California and all around the world, but it’s also revealed other crises like the technology gap that has persisted for too long, leading to opportunity and achievement gaps for California’s students,” Thurmond said in a released statement.

Rodgers said motivation rather than money is the main reason why providers are unwilling to increase capacity in rural areas or at the very least connect rural communities with basic access. In 2010, California established the California Advanced Services Fund to incentivize providers to take on rural projects. The fund includes $575 million for infrastructure and line extensions, $25 million for affordable housing projects and $20 million for broadband upgrades. To date, the fund has provided broadband to 320,700 households, connected 21,326 affordable housing projects and improved speeds for 173,000 people, yet more than 383,000 households still don’t have access to below broadband standards.

“You can’t grant your way out of this problem,” Rodgers said. “You have to find a way to motivate the private sector to use private capital.”

The task force got its first chance to question ISPs on a conference call last week. Providers were willing to share details of their free and affordable programs, their policies on personal identification for service, and enabling free roaming or guest access withint cellular service areas, but actively avoided a question on efforts to expand service to rural and frontier communities that don’t currently have service and were noncommittal about setting up mobile cell towers on a longterm basis until more permanent solutions in place.

One of the task force members, Assemblymember Jim Wood, said most of the programs touted by ISPs were doing a wonderful job of bringing more connectivity to large urban areas but simply didn’t work in rural California.

“Hotspots are great if there’s something to bounce off of, but they don’t work in areas where we don’t have any signal at all,” said Wood, who represents District 2 along California’s northern coast. “Folks in rural California that don’t have access now aren’t going to have access any time soon.”

Like Wood, Rodgers has seen little movement on that front since he began advocating for rural counties five years ago. With the shelter-in-place order lasting longer than most expected, Rodgers said the silver lining of forcing students and parents to work from home is that there may finally be enough pressure to force the state and providers to do something about it.

“Maybe now is the time that we start seeing more significant movement on this issue,” Rodgers said. “I‘m going to take this opportunity to make something good out of this situation.”

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