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Improved broadband coverage for residents of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties was one of the subjects discussed Nov. 2 at the ninth annual State of the Region conference hosted by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) conference.
In its summary of a recent white paper on broadband in the Monterey Bay region, MBEP said that equitable digital access has become a critical need affecting education, healthcare, and economic opportunities, adding that the need is urgent to bridge the region’s digital divide.
San Benito County was represented on the broadband panel discussion at the MBEP conference by District 4 Supervisor Angela Curro, who said that the rural terrain of her district made many areas hard to reach for broadband coverage and that equity needed to be part of the conversation.
She referenced changes in broadband priorities that diverted lines coming down Hwy 101 to Aromas rather than continuing to San Benito County via Hwy 156.
“Aromas is a very important area that needs broadband and also has a terrain issue,” she said. “But the inequity is in the fact that we are a low-income community. We need to look at how we can bring affordable broadband to all of our communities, especially the low-income, and our voices are just not loud enough.”
Curro said she was constantly reiterating that her constituents have a need, and that it is going to take more work and more resources to keep the project moving forward.
“Many people may think ‘if you’re an elected official, you have staff’,” she said. “In San Benito County, we are handed a cell phone and a tablet and told, ‘Have a good time.’ We don’t have people, so we are leaning on community associations.”
She said she would be leaning on local nonprofits and community members for help and offered praise for those that have already stepped in to help.
“The San Juan Bautista Rotary has been a very big driving force,” she said, “and I can’t thank them enough for what they have done. We are bringing people together and motivating them on the importance of broadband and making sure that they can see that this is a big-picture situation for the future of our county and our community.”
In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 156, a wide-ranging broadband initiative that allocated $6 billion in funding for state-owned, open-access broadband infrastructure and required the Public Utilities Commission to identify underserved residents and public resources such as schools, libraries and healthcare institutions.
The white paper identified various aspects of the “digital divide,” defined as “a disparity between individuals who enjoy reliable internet access, digital literacy, and the necessary skills for effective online engagement, and those marginalized due to lack of access.”
The lack of full broadband coverage, according to the report, hinders economic development, education, healthcare and local governments.
One concern is for the Hispanic/ Latino populations that are living in the tri-county region’s low-income and rural areas. It quotes an internet use survey by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration which found that 54% of respondents in those areas said they would purchase home internet if they could afford it.
It cites the underuse of government assistance available through the Affordable Connectivity
Program (ACP), pointing out that 52% of the residents in San Benito County qualify for ACP but only 30% are enrolled.
MBEP seeks to both widen broadband access and increase transmission speed. California legally defines broadband as internet service with a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. MBEP supports bringing speeds up to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, in line with a recent executive order by Newsom.
MBEP’s stated goal is to designate priority locations for infrastructure advancements, increase awareness of broadband inequities, and support policies that would improve broadband affordability and service, particularly in rural communities.
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