Other Opinions

To bridge California’s digital divide, let T-Mobile and Sprint merge

Luz Liliana Hernández uses a cell phone to record a news conference in this file photo
Luz Liliana Hernández uses a cell phone to record a news conference in this file photo Fresno Bee file

California’s impact as a center of technological innovation has affected millions across the globe, usually for the better. Yet, many in our own state have not been included in the benefits of this progress. There are, in effect, two Californias. While many in affluent urban and coastal parts of our state are the first to obtain cutting-edge technologies, too many in rural and historically underserved areas of our state lack access to high-speed internet and the critical resources it enables.

There is now an opportunity to narrow this gap, enabling all Californians to access the technology that is changing our economy and way of life. Access to high-speed internet means access to the world, including vital health care, economic, and educational services. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is currently reviewing the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, a transaction that will promote more equitable access to the next generation of wireless networking technology, known as 5G.

Maria Echaveste of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley Contributed

I recently participated on a technical panel sponsored by the CPUC to discuss why underserved communities must be prioritized as 5G is developed and deployed. It is abundantly clear that a digital divide exists in our very own state. This must change — it is critical that wireless providers commit to offering 5G for all.

As Brookings scholar Nicol Turner Lee notes in a new study, “While lower-income African-Americans and Hispanics have similar levels of smartphone ownership as whites in the United States, they are more likely to depend on mobile services for online access, which is why 5G networks must be widely available, affordable, and able to support emerging technologies that address public interest concerns.”

The T-Mobile-Sprint merger is key to ensuring 5G is available soon to underserved customers. The combined company will increase consumer choice and accelerate the deployment of 5G service across California, especially in underserved areas. The new T-Mobile will spend nearly $40 billion to build out 5G infrastructure and services across the country, creating jobs along the way. That new infrastructure will significantly increase network capacity, which will be filled with new customers.

As a result, the company will have a strong incentive to offer competitive plans to entice new customers and promote quality 5G service in traditionally underserved markets. That means low prices, more reliable coverage, and, most importantly, more Californians with access to broadband. Indeed, all New T-Mobile customers — including those on prepaid plans and recipients of Lifeline — will be served by the same 5G network.

5G will revolutionize the way families and businesses use the internet — and we’re all better off if everyone has access to the network. The services enabled by high-speed internet access and 5G are the key to future economic development in traditionally underserved areas. In rural California, patients will have access to a broader scope of health-care options with innovative telemedicine services; students will be better equipped to do research projects; and critical communications services will be significantly more reliable. Our urban infrastructure will be smarter and more connected; consumers will have more options for their in-home broadband provider; and more Californians will have access to next-generation Internet-of-Things devices that make life easier.

Our state is long overdue to upend the telecommunications status quo. We are only as strong as our most vulnerable communities, and there are currently far too many Californians on the wrong side of the technological divide. We need to bridge that gap fast, as it is key to the economic growth of our state and the well-being of our residents. A stronger competitor in the wireless marketplace, with the ability to speed up 5G investment, will help make that happen.

For a state so well-known for its technology sector, too many of California’s students, workers, and families are being left behind. Let’s seize the 5G future as an opportunity to change that. Let’s do everything we can to ensure our fellow Californians have access to the many benefits of fast, reliable broadband.

Maria Echaveste is a senior fellow at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and at the Opportunity Institute, focused on economic and social mobility. She previously served as President Clinton’s White House deputy chief of staff.

If you go

What: Public hearing on proposed merger of Sprint, T-Mobile

Who: California Public Utilities Commission

Where: Fresno City Hall, council chambers, 2600 Fresno St.

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15