Viewpoints

Can California continue its technological leadership when lack of broadband access leaves some behind?

The Dallas Morning News

For much of the digital age, California has been leading the way. Game-changing companies like Facebook, Google and Apple call our state home, while institutions such as Stanford, UC and Caltech supply California, and the world, with leaders in science and innovation. But in a rapidly changing globalized economy, the question remains: can California continue to lead?

Success in the modern world depends on access to the latest information and resources, mainly found online. Advances in internet technology, such as all-fiber networks, are critical for taking advantage of the data-rich world before us. But California is not harnessing these technologies in a way that enables all Californians to access the internet.

A new study my research partners and I released this week shows that the current state of fiber deployment and broadband access is leaving millions of middle-class and low-income Californians behind. While wealthier neighborhoods have access to fiber internet, many more California communities are stuck in the slow lane.

As the largest telecom provider in the state, AT&T has a unique responsibility to keep Californians connected. The company, which made $13 billion in profit last year, has a traditional network that reaches almost three-quarters of all California households. In 2016, AT&T announced it would be rolling out its all-fiber network nationwide and committed to bringing this service to 12.5 million customers by 2019.

But our research shows that early efforts to deploy this new infrastructure in California have been concentrated in high-income areas, relegating middle class and working families to older forms of technology that deliver significantly slower speeds. Looking at data provided to the Federal Communications Commission, the median household income of California communities with access to AT&T’s all-fiber network is more than 34 percent higher than the statewide median for all households in its footprint.

In contrast, those that must rely on traditional DSL – an older and slower form of technology that offers speeds less than 1 percent of all-fiber networks – report a significantly lower income. Across the seven counties where AT&T is building out its fiber network, the median household income for neighborhoods with all-fiber access outpaces the median income reported in DSL-reliant communities by 44 percent.

But that’s just the median statewide – in many parts of California, these disparities are even more startling. In Los Angeles County, the median household income for communities connected to the new all-fiber network is $110,474. This is more than double the median household income of DSL-dependent neighborhoods, which stands at $47,894.

The picture gets even worse. Millions of Californians who live in the 56 counties served by AT&T don’t have access to basic internet speeds. Even in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, more than 31 percent of households in AT&T’s network can’t get internet service at the speeds the FCC defines as high-speed broadband. This benchmark isn’t a luxury, but reflects the minimum speeds needed for a household to stream video or take an online course.

If you live in rural California, where poor landline service has long been an issue, the situation is particularly dire. In 14 counties, including Butte, Calaveras, Shasta, San Luis Obispo, Humboldt and Mendocino, virtually no household has access to AT&T broadband that meets the FCC’s definition.

The internet has given us incredible tools deemed unimaginable only a few decades ago. But to unlock the full power of these technologies, we must make fair, equitable access to high-speed internet a priority and ensure that all Californians, regardless of income, residence or ethnicity, are connected. As the state’s largest telecom provider, AT&T should be leading the way. It has a lot of work to do.

Eli Moore is program manager for the UC Berkeley Haas Institute’s California community partnerships. He can be contacted at elimoore@berkeley.edu.

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