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‘Stop dividing us further’ – rural Cali residents demand broadband internet

A whopping 31 percent of Californians still lack broadband and a computer at home, according to a 2017 UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll. That needs attention now, writes Chloe Atwater.
A whopping 31 percent of Californians still lack broadband and a computer at home, according to a 2017 UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll. That needs attention now, writes Chloe Atwater. Google Images

In many ways, the lack of high-speed internet and digital literacy in my region has shaped my career and life trajectory.

I manage the Central Sierra Connect Broadband Consortium through the Amador Tuolumne County Community Action Agency, one of the 16 approved regional consortia funded by the California Advanced Services Fund of the California Public Utilities Commission.

This program exists to close the digital divide in California, some of the effects of which have hit me very personally.

I was born and raised in Soulsbyville, an unincorporated community in Tuolumne County. Haven’t heard of it? Yeah, didn’t think so. Somehow we’ve grown to about 2,000 people in Soulsbyville, and we boast a good ol’ gold mine and sawmill (CA Historic Landmark 420, as a matter of fact).

Today, I am a digitally literate promoter of broadband (the generic term for high-speed internet). But I was not always comfortable with, or even aware of, the technologies that many Californians take for granted.

Before getting to the University of California at Davis in 2009, I had never even seen a smart phone. I couldn’t believe that not only did most of my peers have one, but that I was expected to access my email through one 24/7. My classmates navigated online portals with ease, while I spent painstaking hours trying to figure out how to upload documents and send proper emails to professors.

They had been comfortably using broadband-enabled technologies for years in their classrooms and homes, whereas in Soulsbyville we had been stuck with satellite or DSL until the prior year or so. Our teachers didn’t assign online work, because the majority of our school wouldn’t have been able to complete it without home broadband.

Sadly, my town and county are not outliers – today, a whopping 31 percent of Californians still lack broadband and a computer at home, according to a 2017 UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll.

At UC Davis, I was told I would have to switch out of a STEM major (science, technology, engineering and math) if I wanted to graduate on time because I was so far behind. Behind? Back home, I had been a big fish in a small pond. I had been a top student throughout high school, and had exhausted all available resources, taking both AP and community college classes.

Online classes had never even come to mind, as the culture surrounding broadband was completely absent. Given our internet speeds, it likely wasn’t possible anyway.

But I adapted, I pushed myself, I grew. After graduating summa cum laude, I lived in a tent in my friend’s backyard for several months. I couldn’t afford rent, and couldn’t go home because there were no job opportunities. Working online was never a viable option.

After years working, I completed master’s research in anthropology in rural South Africa. To my surprise, it was usually easier and often cheaper to connect there than in most parts of Tuolumne County.

While I had overcome most of my immediate technological struggles by graduate school, I was still behind the technology curve socially. Simple things like my obliviousness to Lyft would shock my grad-student peers, who were almost exclusively from upper-class families (though, to be fair, they were more shocked by the horse that’s regularly tied up outside the Jack in the Box back home).

For our generation, digital literacy is expected in both professional and personal settings. Anything else is surprising, annoying, and ultimately lacking.

But I was a privileged resident of my county. Many of my friends and neighbors were not so lucky. Consider how much a lack of broadband has affected me, and think about what it’s been like for those who have had none at all.

Today, many legislators want to pass a bill that will continue to leave 21,000 of my friends and neighbors in Senate District 8 in digital darkness.

By approving AB 1665 as it stands, California is telling 424,000 rural residents like me and my family, friends and neighbors that we are not equal to those living in urban areas. California is refusing to hold private internet companies responsible for the public good, knowing full well that corporations will not build out to currently unserved areas because it’s not in their financial interest.

California is recognized worldwide as a digital industry leader, yet our politicians and corporations will not provide rural residents with the broadband opportunities to succeed in our society.

We’re better than this California.

Please – talk to your legislators. Ask them to show us that rural and low-income residents are equals by amending AB 1665 per the demands of the California Emerging Technology Fund Coalition, which restores the bill to its original intent: Internet For All NOW.

Chloe Atwater is project manager of the Central Sierra Connect Broadband Consortium, housed within the Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency (ATCAA) in Jackson. AB 1665, also known as the “Internet for All Now Act” (IFAN), is being negotiated in the Senate this month.

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