Closing California’s Digital Divide: One Rural Teacher’s Fight to Get Her Students Connected | #students | #parents

Anberg has convinced several local people to allow Succeed.Net to put up equipment on their land. Lavelock has agreed to lease space from them and install wireless radio equipment needed to relay signals from tower to tower, which will finally bring high speed internet to those areas. And he will waive enrollment fees for new customers.

By helping Anberg, Succeed.Net will fill in a few of its own coverage gaps, said Lavelock, who grew up in the area and founded his company in 1995. 

“It’s not really a big money thing. I’m at the stage where I can now do things just to help the communities,” Lavelock said.

Limited Choices

Lavelock shares Anberg’s frustration with larger internet service providers (ISPs) which collectively have taken billions of dollars in government money to improve infrastructure in rural parts of the state but have not delivered, according to many industry watchdogs.

In Colusa County, the main provider is Frontier Communications, which recently filed for bankruptcy.

“Frontier has been the monopoly here for many, many years,”  Anberg said. According to the 2019 California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card, Colusa County got an F+ grade. That’s the grade given if the provider offers service, but doesn’t meet minimum standards.

Even the school district itself is at the mercy of Frontier, said the superintendent.

“Frontier is our provider and and they aren’t always reliable,” Geyer said. “Last week we went a day and a half with no internet whatsoever. We lost connectivity at the district level.”

Frontier told KQED that it had responded promptly to resolve the disruption to Pierce Unified’s service and that the trouble was caused by a piece of equipment that was not available until the next day.

“In a large, geographically diverse area, service interruptions occur,” the company said in a statement.

Ariel Johnson (right) and her sister Kaileia Johnson said they must often  wait until midnight to do their homework because their internet, which is provided by Frontier, is so slow they can’t be on it while family members are using it for work during the day. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Over the years, Anberg has become convinced government should consider internet a public utility like electricity and water, ensuring it is available and affordable to everyone. She had seen effective Wi-Fi networks in rural parts of Costa Rica when she traveled there, and didn’t understand why parts of California, known globally for its tech savvy reuptation, couldn’t make it work. She began to dig into the issue.

“I found out that there’s been legislation toward helping rural infrastructure for at least 10 years, in the Connect America I and Connect America II legislation, but that funding went to carriers who absorbed it, but then did not build that infrastructure,” said Anberg. “They weren’t held accountable, because they’re self reporting.”

It’s an issue that’s long been on the radar of the non-profit advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“A lot of the mapping data that the federal government has been relying on is woefully inaccurate,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at EFF. “But it’s inaccurate because the industry is supposed to report it and there hasn’t been any sort of investigation in terms of who’s abusing their position on that.”

Anberg did her own sleuthing into census-block mapping to find out how Frontier was using its funds. She said Frontier absorbed $140 million in Connect America II funds over four years and claimed it had enhanced broadband to certain addresses in Arbuckle, but when Anberg checked with customers at those addresses they told her their service had not improved.

Frontier responded in a statement that it is the Federal Communications Commission, not Frontier, which identifies the specific areas that qualify for funding to enhance broadband services, and that the company is committed to meeting its Connect America Fund obligations according to the program’s requirements.

Meanwhile, Frontier continues to apply for and receive state funding. In May it applied for a California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant which is being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). If approved, Frontier said it is confident it can bring “enhanced broadband to even more of Colusa County.”

Public-Private Partnerships

The CPUC recently saw its authority over the state’s broadband industry restored after ten years of deregulation won by the industry expired.

“A lot of effort has been happening in California the last couple of years to build up the state’s capacity to regulate these companies themselves,” said EFF’s Falcon. “If the federal government won’t do it, then we should be.”

In December, the CPUC approved nearly $11 million for Frontier to deploy “middle mile” fiber and high speed lines in Lassen and Modoc counties. But the connectivity speed the state is requiring is outdated, said the EFF’s Falcon.

A bill before the state Legislature this past session, Senate Bill 1130, dubbed “Broadband for All,” would have fixed that, requiring ISPs to provide high speed infrastructure, but it died on the floor in August. State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said a three-way deal could not be reached, while Long Beach’s state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said no explanation was given for killing the bill.

While legislators squabble, the state has moved to close the digital divide in other ways. Gov. Gavin Newsom pushed the CPUC to make $25 million available from the California Teleconnect Fund for hot spots and internet service for student households. School districts will be able to apply to receive 50% discounts on the cost of hot spot devices and on monthly recurring service charges until Sept. 30 of this year.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, assembled a task force of ISPs in April, asking them to come up with solutions. Thurmond has also cut deals with different companies, including Apple and T-Mobile, to get tablets equipped with Wi-Fi to students in need.

But tired of waiting, some rural school districts across the country are getting creative on their own by figuring out how to bring the internet into students’ homes through public-private partnerships between state agencies and telecoms, essentially setting up their own community networks.

That’s what Anberg’s district has just decided to do. Faced with footing the bill for hundreds of students’ hot spots to the tune of $72,000 a year, the district hopes instead to use state funds to establish its own district-wide network by joining Edunet, a Colusa County education effort that wants to leverage the educational band of the LTE spectrum to transmit to students’ homes. Anberg was brought in by the superintendent to be part of the talks.

“I am super blessed that the families here trusted me with their internet information, and now I get to honor that by getting them connected,” Anberg said.

After months of relentless work to get students connected, Anberg said she can’t wait to return to the mobile home park where she started this work to tell the families they might finally have an affordable internet option.

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