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October 21, 2021

Salinas Valley leaders discuss closing digital divide

State allocates funding to expand broadband access, including in rural areas

SALINAS VALLEY — Area representatives recently joined with California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign legislation investing $6 billion to expand broadband infrastructure in an effort to bridge the digital divide.

The July 21 signing of AB/SB 156 took place in the unincorporated community of Traver. Among those present at the press conference was Sen. Anna Caballero, who brought attention to the fact that $1 billion of the funding is specifically allocated for broadband development in rural areas, such as her district, which includes the Salinas Valley.

State Assemblymember Robert Rivas hosted a virtual town hall discussion the next day, July 22, and was joined by area leaders to discuss efforts in closing the digital divide.

“If there’s a silver lining in this pandemic, it’s that these longstanding issues that have existed in our communities for decades are finally getting the attention they deserve,” Rivas said. “Now we have to ensure that the investments, that the work is going to be done to ensure we make progress.”

Caballero added, “When we entered this pandemic and everything had to be done online to get children the education they needed, the groceries we needed to buy, the Zoom calls we needed to make when we were at home, what was very clear was our system is just not working.”

Monterey County District 1 Supervisor Luis Alejo called access to quality internet “as basic to modern life as electricity or running water.”

He noted the pandemic showed how vital the internet was, from school to telehealth to work and even for basic connecting between people.

“Locally, we know there was this remarkable image of these little girls outside a fast-food restaurant in East Salinas last August,” Alejo said. “I was glad that at a local government level, we did not sit back. We took action. We built a coalition among local governments.”

He said the first steps taken toward securing access were leaders making sure to get into action rather than kicking the can down the road.

In Monterey County, Alejo joined with District 3 Supervisor Chris Lopez to vote with the Board of Supervisors to form a broadband task force. The task force is intended to figure out internet needs of the county and prioritize those needs into actionable phases.

“We have to start somewhere, and we haven’t even done a needs assessment of our own county,” Alejo said.

According to Lopez, access to broadband-speed internet is vital even in expansive rural areas, such as his district in California, which he compared to the size of the state of Rhode Island. His district encompasses all of South Monterey County

“We need that connectivity to create the future of agriculture, to save water, to look at the opportunities to leverage what we do on the ground here, which is feeding the rest of the world,” Lopez said.

Although South Monterey County is considered rural, he said it has the same needs as the rest of the state in terms of internet access.

Caballero went through the logistics of the state’s abilities.

“The state of California has no right to regulate broadband services, that is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission at the federal level,” she said. “But what we do have the ability to regulate is cable companies.”

Caballero explained deals with renewal terms could be struck with service providers, and in some instances the state or other area governments could buy out service capabilities.

The new 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; and
  • 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.
Sean Roney
Sean Roney is the reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.
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