Phyllis Kimber Wilcox
In a recent meeting with the California Black Caucus, Governor Gavin Newsom shared his proposal to fully fund the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Project (MMBI).
The MMBI, paid for by both state and federal funding, plans to create the physical infrastructure necessary to bring high spéed high capacity internet to the entire state. The MMBI project will provide an open access network giving network providers “wholesale access to broadband infrastructure”. In turn network providers can pass on these reduced costs to their subscribers. This is being done by utilizing a combination of the most “cost effective” approaches including leasing, purchasing and jointly building the needed infrastructure.
Adoption and income
Studies have shown for years prior to the pandemic that students’ access to the internet has been tied to the socio-economic and educational attainment of their parents.
The effects of internet access on cumulative student achievement however, has been a mixed bag with some studies suggesting internet access for rural students is not proven to be determinative for overall educational attainment. While others have claimed the opposite effect. According to the National Association of Education Statistics using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or (NAEP) as a metric, students without the internet scored lower on these assessments then those with the internet. The NAEP is a standardized test which measures grade level academic performance.
The Digital Access Achievement Gap is Larger for Older Students
What is known is that students’ access to the internet increases with age; and pre- pandemic the internet was used as a study tool. Those without reliable access to that tool may have faced an additional obstacle to learning and achievement.
Pandemic Spurs Action
At the height of the pandemic instruction went online making the internet essential to student education. Those without computers or the internet or only had access to the internet through smartphones were scrambling for help. Some school districts either provided computers for students or provided internet access themselves.
The MMBI project is an outgrowth of the Governor and State Legislature ‘s 2021, six billion dollar investment to make the internet accessible to all Californians. At the time Newsom stated, “California is committed to taking on the challenges laid bare by the pandemic, including the digital divide holding back too many communities across the state,”
Also according to the governor, “These projects are the first step to delivering on our historic investment that will ensure all Californians have access to high-quality broadband internet, while also creating new jobs to support our nation-leading economic recovery.”
Until now, the size, scope and complex nature of the MMBI project has kept it from completion at its original rate of funding. Inflation and construction costs have left a shortfall which the Governor wants to remedy by proposing the MMBI be part of California ‘s January budget. This would pay for the remaining infrastructure, some seventeen hundred miles of fiber optic cable. The announcement was made public in a tweet by the California Legislative Black Caucus after the meeting in which the Governor renewed his comment to the project.
The importance of the MMBI project to homes and schools in vulnerable communities which lack internet access, is an ongoing concern for the California Legislative Black Caucus and part of the MMBI’s mandate.
Health. Telework and the Pandemic
During the Pandemic not only did students rely on the internet for instruction, adults relied on it for keeping track of the public health crisis, telecommuting and online work, making internet access important to keeping the economy going. However, there were differences in how the internet was used based on one’s economic status.
In a study by Nature magazine, internet usage during the pandemic was compared by zip code and findings highlighted disparities in the search terms most frequently used showing that higher income individuals were more concerned with the health implications of the ongoing crisis while lower income individuals were more concerned with unemployment and meeting basic needs. “We isolate the percent change in health condition query proportions introduced during the pandemic where the differences between high- and low-income groups start to emerge. We observe that low income zip codes experienced almost 200% less change in health condition queries compared to that of the high-income groups right after the US national emergency is declared,” the study noted.
It also described the digital divide as the most basic form of digital inequality. It stressed how, “the so-called first-level digital divide, manifests itself as the difference between adequate and inadequate digital infrastructure and devices,” in other words with the access to technology or the quality of access to technology.
Riverside and San Bernardino Counties
The MMBI is being built using existing CalTrans right of way. Riverside and San Bernardino counties are both in region five of the MMBI project. The proposal is to build three hundred and eighty miles of internet infrastructure in Riverside County. Currently three hundred and eighty miles are in the pre-construction phase with one hundred and thirty miles planned for phase two. None of Riverside County’s construction is complete. In San Bernardino County six hundred and seventy six miles are in the pre-construction phase with one hundred and seventy miles planned for phase two. None of San Bernardino County’s construction is complete.
The project continues to provide important employment opportunities in the Inland Empire and throughout the state. The California Department of Technology’s MMBI Advisory Committee has created partnerships with local community leaders such as legislatures, tribal governments and local officials to determine the quickest, most efficient ways of building broadband infrastructure.