Internet for All in California

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Digital Beat

Internet for All in California

“Delivering broadband to all is essential to California’s success.”— Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA)

California is the most populous U.S. state,  home to more than 10 percent of all Americans. Despite California's agricultural importance nationally, its population is overwhelmingly urban and still increasing. Most of the state's population lives in one of its two major urban regions, one centered on Los Angeles, the other on San Francisco.

California is also the third-largest state by area with a diverse geography. There are broad areas of desert in the southern interior and heavily forested slopes along the coastal north. The lowest and highest elevations in the conterminous United States, Death Valley and Mount Whitney, respectively, are almost within sight of each other. The coast of California is lined by long mountain ranges. To the east of the Coast Ranges lies the extremely flat Central Valley. This valley is a low-relief landscape rich in potential for large-scale agricultural pursuits. The striking flatness of the San Joaquin Valley is in sharp contrast to the ruggedness of the Sierra Nevada mountain range which reaches high elevations and contains few passes. Directly north of the Central Valley are two of the state's major volcanic peaks, Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta. To the southeast of the Central Valley, the Great Basin of the interior is composed of low-lying mountains interspersed with large areas of fairly flat land.

The state's economy is huge—it is the largest sub-national economy in the world—and diverse including the manufacture of computers and electronics, aerospace, film and television, agriculture, and viticulture. The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together form the fastest growing major cargo center in the world. California receives about 20 percent of all Department of Defense spending and nearly half of that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Some of the largest companies in the world—like Apple, Alphabet/Google, and Meta/Facebook—are headquartered in California. Since the invention of the integrated circuit, Silicon Valley and growth have been nearly synonymous. In 1959 there were roughly 18,000 high-technology jobs in the area. By 1971 there were approximately 117,000 such jobs, and in 1990 nearly 268,000 filled positions. From 1992 to 1999 Silicon Valley added more than 230,000 jobs (an increase of 23 percent) and accounted for roughly 40 percent of California’s export trade. Electronics, computers, and computer software made the region’s wealth.

Delivering broadband to a state as large and diverse as California is complicated. Regions and communities vary by levels of competition, historic investment, and the need for subsidies to incentivize infrastructure deployment and broadband adoption. While broadband infrastructure and increasing adoption have helped power California’s fiscal health and well-being for decades, access to this essential service remains uneven.

The Digital Divide in California

At the end of 2018, broadband services that advertised download speeds of 100 Mbps or greater were available to nearly 95 percent of California households due mainly to widespread cable and fiber deployment in dense urban areas. But in 2019, the California Broadband Council estimated that 23 percent of California housing units—home to 8.4 million residents—did not have broadband subscriptions. Many homes in urban areas remain unserved or do not have access to the same broadband infrastructure (especially fiber) that is available to wealthier neighbors, illustrating a historical pattern of uneven investment. And in rural California less than half of households (46.5 percent) had access to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband. Tribal lands, which are largely rural, remain consistently underserved by broadband: nearly a quarter of tribal lands lacked access to a fixed broadband provider.

Approximately 674,000 households in the state lacked high-capacity broadband, with about 305,000 located in urban areas and 369,000 located in rural areas.

The geographical challenge is immense. Consider that urban California covers nearly 8,200 square miles and contains almost 95 percent of the state’s population. Rural California is home to 5 percent of the population spread across 147,000 square miles—an area larger than the combined land areas of Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia.

But California’s challenge is not only geography. Many Californians struggle to access broadband even when it is physically available. Income, education, disability status, age, race, and ethnicity all correlate with lower broadband adoption.

Executive Action

In August 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA) signed an Executive Order mandating that the California Department of Technology (CDT), the California Broadband Council (CBC), the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), the California Department of General Services (DGS) and the California Department of Education (CDE), among others, to take actions that could improve connectivity around the state. The 15-point order directed various government agencies to:

  • Set 100 Mbps as the goal for California broadband infrastructure investment.
  • Create a State Broadband Action Plan by December 31, 2020 (and to review the plan annually thereafter).
  • Lead data aggregation and mapping efforts in collaboration with the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) and other relevant state agencies, local and tribal governments, and regional consortia.
  • Seek opportunities to use programs under its jurisdiction to accelerate broadband deployment and to leverage utility infrastructure to increase access to existing fiber and cost-effectively deploy new fiber.
  • Regularly convene private-sector companies in an effort to understand and predict current and future demand for broadband.
  • Identify funding opportunities for broadband deployment and adoption.
  • Coordinate the outreach efforts of existing statewide programs and institutions to inform residents of affordable broadband service offerings.
  • Leverage the State's contract authorities as resources to further statewide broadband access and adoption.
  • Incorporate the installation of conduit and/or fiber into all transportation projects.
  • Inventory state property for possible use for broadband infrastructure.
  • Leverage Next-Generation 9-1-1 to expand broadband infrastructure to enhance public safety and disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation capabilities.
  • Identify and facilitate new broadband projects that support precision agriculture and food systems in rural communities
  • Increase free or low-cost broadband connectivity at all publicly subsidized housing communities for residential units.
  • Ensure students have the computing devices and connectivity necessary for distance learning and online instruction. 
  • Analyze the needs of people ages 60 and older for access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband, and to identify program and partnership opportunities to close the digital divide among older Californians.

Implementation of the Executive Order is tracked online.

California's Broadband Plan

The  California State Legislature created the California Broadband Council in 2010 to promote broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas of the state, and broadband adoption throughout the state for the benefit of all Californians. The council identifies state resources, encourages public and private partnerships, and recommends strategic policy to establish effective structures for providing world-class high-speed internet access throughout California. The 12-member council is run by the California Department of Technology’s Office of Broadband and Digital Literacy which provides support by managing the statewide ecosystem of individuals and organizations dedicated to closing the digital divide.

In 2020, the council published the Broadband for All Action Plan with three long-term goals—that all Californians have:

  1. High-performance broadband available at home, schools, libraries, and businesses. Broadband is not available or resilient in all corners of the state. Rural communities, tribal lands, and some urban areas face particular challenges. Californians also need fast enough internet to live and thrive in modern society. Learning, getting government services, working, and receiving health care increasingly assume broadband access. All Californians should have high-performance broadband available where they live. This includes low-income neighborhoods. The homeless or those without broadband at home should have access to broadband in their communities. Schools, libraries, and community-based organizations will continue to provide critical community access.
  2. Access to affordable broadband and necessary devices. Broadband service is still unaffordable for too many Californians today. The total cost of access is challenging. The costs stack up: a computer, a mouse, a router, a subscription. These costs can put broadband out of reach, particularly for lower-income families or those with little credit. All Californians should have affordable broadband service and devices available, regardless of geography or household income.
  3. Access to training and support to enable digital inclusion. Broadband adoption requires more than availability and affordability of service and devices. People need digital literacy to want broadband services, and to enjoy the many (and ever-increasing) digital opportunities. Californians must have access to digital skills training for job opportunities to thrive in a digital world.

The plan includes 24 action steps in support of the three goals. Interested parties can follow implementation of the plan on the online Action plan progress tracker.

California's Broadband Legislation and Programs

2021 Digital Divide Law

In July 2021, Governor Newsom signed SB 156 providing a historic $6 billion to accelerate the state’s commitment to bridging the digital divide.

Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative

SB 156 directs the California Department of Technology to develop a statewide, open-access middle-mile network. The law also provided $3.25 billion to build the necessary infrastructure to bring internet connectivity to homes, businesses and community institutions. The California Office of Broadband and Digital Literacy oversees the acquisition and management of contracts for the development, construction, maintenance and operation of the network. The California Department of Technology (CDT) has also retained a third-party administrator to construct and establish the network and has created a nine-member Middle-Mile Advisory Committee.

CDT released a statewide construction evaluation map that includes 10,000 miles of proposed build spanning the entire state. This full-system design map was delivered to Caltrans to conduct preconstruction work. CDT will evaluate the affordability and identify where the state will be able to build and where it will need to use Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU) leases. All projects will be completed by December 2026.

In November 2021, 18 projects began work on an open-access middle-mile network.

Last-Mile and Adoption Programs

SB 156 allocated $2.75 billion to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to establish the following three programs.

  1. The $2 billion Federal Funding Account to build last-mile infrastructure for Californians without access to high-speed broadband service. Projects built using the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds must be built by 2027.
  2. A $750 million Broadband Loan Loss Reserve Fund supports costs related to the financing of local broadband infrastructure development. The reserve fund expands local governments’ ability to secure financing for building last-mile projects, with an emphasis on public broadband networks. The reserve fund expands the ability of local governments, tribes and non-profits to secure financing for building last-mile projects, with an emphasis on public broadband networks. The fund will provide collateral to local governments to enable more favorable borrowing rates and terms for bonds issued to deploy broadband infrastructure.  
  3. A $50 million Local Agency and Tribal Technical Assistance grant program to reimburse Tribes and local agencies for eligible pre-construction expenses that facilitate deployment of broadband network deployment projects to areas in need. [$5 million was set aside for tribes.] The program has received 116 non-Tribal local agency requests for $51.9 million in funding, which has exceeded the $45 million allocation for non-Tribal local agencies.

California Advanced Services Fund

In October 2021, Gov. Newsom signed additional legislation to improve access to broadband across the state, particularly for those in underserved communities:

AB 14 extends the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) program to encourage deployment of broadband service to unserved Californians, and revising the surcharge collection methodology for interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol service and the Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program. CASF is allocated to five accounts:

  • Broadband Adoption Account: The CPUC awards grants to increase publicly available or after-school broadband access and digital inclusion, such as grants for digital literacy training programs and public education to communities with limited broadband adoption. Local governments, senior centers, schools, public libraries, nonprofit organizations, and community-based organizations with programs to increase publicly available or after-school broadband access and digital inclusion, such as digital literacy training programs are eligible to apply for grants.
  • Broadband Infrastructure Grant Account: The CPUC awards grants to subsidize the cost of middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure to expand the State’s broadband network. The program's goal is to encourage deployment of high-quality advanced communications services to all Californians that will promote economic growth, job creation, and the substantial social benefits of advanced information and communications technologies.
    • Line Extension Pilot Program: This pilot project within the CASF Broadband Infrastructure Grant Account allows an individual household and/or property owner to apply for an infrastructure grant to offset the costs of connecting a household or property to an existing or proposed facility-based broadband provider.
  • Broadband Public Housing Account: The CPUC awards grants and loans to build broadband networks offering free broadband service for residents of low-income communities including but not limited to, publicly supported housing developments, and other housing developments or mobile home parks with low-income residents.
  • Rural and Urban Regional Broadband Consortia Grant Account: Grants to facilitate the deployment of broadband services by assisting CASF infrastructure grant applicants in the project development or grant application process or assisting broadband deployment projects.

SB 4 extends the operation of the CASF through 2032, increases the annual funding cap for the CASF, and expands projects eligible for CASF grants to include broadband deployment at unserved locations used for emergency response.

SB 28 expands the authority of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to collect data to enforce requirements for cable franchises and authorizes the CPUC to set customer service requirements for cable providers.

Broadband Affordability

The California LifeLine program provides a monthly subsidy of $16.23 to low-income qualified participants for wireline or mobile voice and broadband services. The program works in tandem with the federal Lifeline program, operated by the Federal Communications Commission, which provides a monthly subsidy of up to $9.25 for telephone and broadband services.

The California Teleconnect Fund (CTF) program provides a 50 percent discount on advanced communication services (including Internet access and broadband services) to qualifying K–12 schools, libraries, community colleges, government-owned hospitals/health clinics, and community-based organizations.

Federal Broadband Funding for California

COVID-era legislation created a number of federal broadband programs. Californians are making use of these funding opportunities to close the digital divide.

Tribal Broadband Connectivity (TBCP) Program

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program—created by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 and renewed in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Actis a $3 billion program directed to tribal governments to be used for broadband deployment on tribal lands, as well as for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has awarded 15 Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants totaling nearly $155 million to tribes in California, including:

  • The Hoopa Valley Tribal Council received over $65 million to install fiber and wireless to directly connect 1,045 unserved Native American households, 64 Tribal businesses, and 19 community anchor institutions with fiber-to-the-home with 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, construct a Tribal data center, install a tower, and provide workforce development training. (See more at Hoopa Valley Tribe is Closing the Digital Divide.)
  • The Yurok Telecommunications—created by the Yorok Tribe in Northern California—received over $61.5 million to install middle fiber and last mile wireless connecting 921 unserved Native American households on the Yurok Reservation and Yurok Ancestral Lands with fixed wireless to the home with 100 Mbps/25 Mbps service. 
  • Round Valley Indian Tribes received over $13.5 million to install fiber and wireless directly connecting 726 unserved Tribal households, 3 unserved Tribal businesses, and 7 unserved Tribal community anchor institutions with 1 Gbps/10 Gbps qualified broadband service. 
  • The Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, located near Pacerville (CA)—received over $2.7 million to install fiber directly connecting 45 unserved Tribal households, 3 unserved Tribal businesses, and 6 unserved Tribal community anchor institutions with 1 Gbps qualifying broadband service. 
  • The Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation received over $1.8 million to install fiber and fixed wireless to directly connect 39 unserved Tribal households, 6 unserved Tribal businesses, and 10 unserved Tribal community anchor institutions with qualifying broadband service between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps.

Connecting Minority Communities (CMC) Pilot Program

The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program—created by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021is a $268 million grant program to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). The program's goal is to help these organizations buy broadband services and equipment. This funding also helps hire and train information technology personnel. Nine schools in California have won Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program awards totaling over $26 million, including:

  • California State University, Dominguez Hills was awarded more than $5 million to promote digital equity by providing access and training in digital technologies for the university's students. The project also aims to encourage the adoption, expansion, and continued use of these technologies within the anchor communities by partnering with nonprofit organizations.
  • Loma Linda University was awarded more than $3.3 million to make healthcare education more accessible to students whose location, access to transportation, family life, or work circumstance preclude them from coming to campus on a scheduled basis. The project will ensure students and instructors have the tools they need for effective distance education.
  • California State University, Sacramento was awarded nearly $3 million to train students as Digital Navigator Interns (DNIs) and deploy them to community anchor institutions. The Sacramento Regional Consortium for Digital Equity aims to amplify outreach to at-risk communities struggling with digital exclusion. The Digital Navigator Interns (DNIs) will serve as teaching assistants, interns and mentors in digital learning spaces.
  • Southwestern College was awarded $3 million to increase the technology access of its needy students and improve their retention and success rates. The project will provide laptops and computers, broadband internet, and Wi-fi hotspots to students in need.
  • Cabrillo College was awarded nearly $3 million to expand broadband access and improve the educational experience of Latino and low-income students involved in remote and/or hybrid flexible (HyFlex) learning.

Planning Grants

On December 20, 2023, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded California nearly $9 million to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed Internet service throughout the state. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act established the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program. California's initial BEAD award of almost $5 million will fund:

  • Identification of unserved and underserved locations;
  • Planning and increasing capacity of the state broadband office;
  • Asset mapping across the state to catalogue high-speed Internet adoption, affordability, equity, access and deployment;
  • Surveying communities to better understand barriers to high-speed Internet service adoption;
  • Community planning grants to support regional broadband planning;
  • Development of a 5-year action plan.

California's 5-year action plan is expected in mid-October 2023.

NTIA also awarded California just over $4 million for digital equity planning efforts including:

  • Developing a California digital equity plan;
  • Establishing a state digital equity task force and creating priority area subcommittees;
  • Conducting a statewide digital equity survey;
  • Soliciting public comment through the Broadband for All Portal.

California's digital equity plan is expected in December 2023.

Capital Projects Fund

On April 13, 2023, the U.S. Treasury approved California's plan to use the state's full Capital Projects Fund, $540.2 million, to increase access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet to 127,000 households and businesses. The California Public Utilities Commission is establishing the Last Mile Broadband Expansion, a new competitive grant program designed to provide 100/100 Mbps broadband service in  areas of the state lacking access to reliable broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps.

California estimates that the investments made using the Capital Projects Fund will serve approximately 16 percent of locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2023. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
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