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How California’s ‘once in a century’ broadband investment plan could go wrong

A nearly $2 billion initiative to remedy the digital divide is designed to fail, advocates say

Illustration of an early computer monitor displaying the text "Connecting to WIFI" set against a background of a map with scattered abstract shapes and US coins
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters; iStock

Hi everyone,

It’s Ko, investigative editor here. You might remember news of our merger with the fellow nonprofit newsroom CalMatters—we’ve taken a quick break from Hello World in the last two weeks to officially integrate into one staff of nearly 100. As we’re settling into our new home, it’s been heartening to see our newsrooms’ synergy speak for itself. That’s perhaps clearest through a story out this week from CalMatters’ first-ever tech reporter, Khari Johnson, who delved into California’s effort to distribute $1.8 billion to increase internet access in the state that could be doomed from the start. 

At The Markup, our award-winning Still Loading series found that major internet service providers across 38 major cities offered lower-income, least-White, and historically redlined neighborhoods slow internet for the same price as the fast internet they offered in richer, more-White neighborhoods. Now, as federal money from a $42.5 billion pool goes to states through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, we’re also following how this process unfolds.

BEAD funding is designed to subsidize telecom companies to build new broadband networks in parts of the country lacking infrastructure. States are at various points in planning how to disperse the funds. Using maps The Federal Communications Commission compiled with internet service provider data, Californians will work to make the maps as accurate as possible via a challenge process running from July 8 through Aug. 5. The final maps will determine if the most in need will get the internet infrastructure into their homes. But advocates say the internet access maps are highly inaccurate.  

Only local and tribal governments, internet service providers, and advocacy groups can demand changes to the map. Khari reported that in order for an individual Californian to contest that their internet access doesn’t match what’s in the map, one of these groups must verify the evidence the individual gathered and claim their challenge. Otherwise it won’t be recognized by state and federal agencies. 

To successfully challenge internet speeds, an individual must carry out speed tests three times a day over the span of three days and provide details. They must also subscribe to a broadband speed plan or the highest tier plan available from an internet service provider. Advocates told Khari the challenge process is short, arduous, and unfairly places the burden of proving that inaccuracy on people in areas unserved or underserved. They warn this could lead to the once in a generation money being misspent. 

If you visit California’s BEAD funding online portal, you can see if your home or nearby community institutions are designated as eligible for funding, and whether the map inaccurately says your area has internet access or adequate internet speed. The same portal lets visitors run speed tests. 

Educators are particularly concerned about this funding. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit and teachers at the Fresno Unified School District started teaching classes remotely, Philip Neufeld, a district IT worker and member of the Fresno Coalition for Digital Inclusion, started work to ensure 70,000 students could log on. He heard stories you might’ve too: Students going to Taco Bell and McDonald’s for WiFi to do their homework. Neufeld and a colleague built an open source tool to gather 14 million speed tests across Fresno over the span of two years.

“What it shows is that it’s not just people in rural areas who have a real need for better internet,” he said. “It’s people in urban, low-income neighborhoods in apartment buildings and mobile home parks, and these patterns are showing up across multiple large cities that have higher poverty.” 

As always, thanks for reading,

Ko Bragg

Investigative Editor

The Markup & CalMatters

We don't only investigate technology. We instigate change.

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