Let’s Talk… Digital Equity

Connecting California: Broadband for All

April 5, 2024


In today’s digital world, having fast, affordable, and reliable internet service has become an essential part of daily life. Being digitally connected provides access to essential aspects of our society including: education, workforce training, employment, healthcare, and countless other opportunities. The consequences then for those stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide can be dire – currently, 1 in 5 Californians lack access to broadband at home. Although recent pandemic-driven Congressional and State Legislative efforts to expand access have made inroads, many historically marginalized, rural, and low-income California communities still lack reliable, fast, and affordable internet.

Digital Disconnect in California

So what’s driving the significant lack of broadband access in our state? Results from a 2023 survey by the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism revealed that high costs continue to be the main barrier preventing Californians from accessing the internet, with many paying an average monthly price of $83.60 per household. This harsh reality aligns with other studies, which have found American consumers pay up to 40 percent more for the same or similar broadband service in other countries. A few different factors account for this disparity, including a lack of competition in the marketplace (monopolization), digital redlining, and weak franchise regulations that do nothing to address equal access. In fact, in the past 18 years, competition statewide in the internet service marketplace has actually decreased as the percentage of California households with access to two or more internet service providers (ISPs) has plunged from 80 percent to 65 percent. Moreover, prices have continued to increase – in the case of at least one franchise holder, prices have increased by more than 150 percent. Simply put, three years after the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the longstanding reality of inequitable access to affordable broadband, families continue to struggle under the burden of high cost internet plans.

In today’s 21st century world, fast, affordable, and reliable broadband can no longer be considered optional for any California resident; it is instead a modern necessity integral to most, if not all, aspects of life. Broadband access provides all Californians with a platform to build businesses, receive quality healthcare, obtain social services, and grow our economy – it’s also a necessity for educational and workforce training opportunities. From elementary school to college to certificate programs, affordable home internet connections are a must-have to achieve academic and career success. With the arrival of telehealth, a strong internet connection is quickly becoming an important part of a comprehensive quality healthcare system. Affordable broadband is not only a modern necessity but an avenue of immense opportunity to build a better, more prosperous California for all. But who bears the brunt of this inequity?

Predictably, low-income black and brown, rural, and tribal communities disportionately shoulder the immense weight of being on the wrong side of the digital divide; with many of the individuals who live in these communities having limited or no internet access. A recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study found that some progress has been made, but also found some disturbingly persistent disparities. Only about two in three rural households have broadband access at home. About 6% of Black, Latino, low-income, and non-college-degree households have no internet at all, and only 80% of low-income and rural households have devices. Another 2023 study found 24 percent of Hispanics households in California access the internet solely through their smartphones, or have no access at all. When you consider more than half of Californians access essential services online, with three-quarters using the internet for financial transactions (such as banking, investing, paying bills, or sending money), 56 percent accessing health records or insurance information online, and 48 percent using it to access government services, such as registering to vote or renewing a driver’s license, it is clear affordability, universal service, and robust competition in the broadband marketplace are all essential to successfully building more digitally connected communities.

Our Efforts to Close the Digital Divide

Alongside other coalition partners, NextGen California has fought to: pass meaningful legislation that fosters competition; secure budget resources for broadband infrastructure investments in the communities that need it most; expand digital literacy programs; and establish regulatory policies that prevent digital discrimination. This is why we fought hard to pass SB 156 as part of California’s 2021-2022 final state budget package. SB 156 provided a historic $6 billion investment in a 10,000 mile open-access, state Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure network (also known as MMBI). But there is still much work to be done to ensure this once in a generation state investment is deployed effectively, helps to leverage additional federal funds, and most importantly, lives up to its intent to build out a more equitable broadband network for communities who need it most.

NextGen’s advocacy work in this area isn’t solely legislative. Digital equity is a priority for us and the NGP team works with a wide range of partners in various communities across the state to raise awareness about the need to close the digital divide, better understand community needs, and find ways to amplify community voices in the legislative policy and budget decision-making processes. Recently, we worked with nearly 200 partners across the state to drive community engagement in 14 Broadband for All workshops, where participants shared personal stories around the enormous challenge of not having access to affordable broadband, while also providing input on how to best allocate federal broadband infrastructure funds.

Additionally, we developed and launched a digital equity program, Connect Corps, in partnership with Compton College. Connect Corps, a Digital Navigator driven program, focuses on providing south L.A. communities with affordable internet options, tech support, and the necessary digital literacy skills to fully participate in today’s economy and society. NextGen is also a co-founder of the California Alliance for Digital Equity (CADE), a coalition of diverse organizations that works to advance and advocate for systemic change to address digital inequity.

Upcoming Work and Collaborations

As we look ahead, NextGen is committed to working with our CADE and Digital Equity L.A. (DELA) partners to ensure all Californians have the resources they need to fully address and overcome barriers of digital inclusion. Our work with partners this year will focus on securing additional funding to build out the state’s 10,000 Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Network (MMBI) and supporting legislation that combats digital discrimination by internet service providers (ISPs). Although the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provided a $30/month subsidy towards a household’s internet bill, is expected to end this month, we’re redoubling our efforts to tackle the affordability issue. We will continue to work with the Legislature, community partners, and fellow advocates to ensure all Californians have access to affordable, fast, and reliable home internet service. We’re also committed to ensuring that the state’s Digital Equity Plan (which we helped to draft and is the precursor to the state drawing down federal funds) is effectively implemented and sufficiently resourced.

NextGen will continue its advocacy work to build a more connected and equitable California, and we hope you will come along for the ride and support our efforts to close the digital divide – stay tuned for more!

Thanks for reading,
Arturo Juarez

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