Mike Dozier: State bill will finish the job on broadband

The Fresno Bee
April 25, 2013

Imagine if California crops could feed millions more. Think of the possibilities if every Valley student had high-speed Internet at home. Consider the economic opportunities if every town center had affordable broadband access for businesses.

This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking, but real initiatives being pursued by state and regional leaders who have set a goal to deploy broadband infrastructure to reach 98% of California households by 2017.

As leaders in this effort, we recognize that the ambitious statewide goal can only be met if the Valley is able to continue the work of deploying broadband infrastructure in our rural and underserved communities.

Through the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), a state-sponsored loan and grant program to expand broadband infrastructure, nearly 300,000 California households will have broadband access when the currently funded programs are completed.

Even so, 225,000 households statewide will remain without a connection. That’s why we are urging the passage of Senate Bill 740 to finish the job in the Valley and California.

SB 740 is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. The legislation, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, essentially would provide the final piece of a 10-year deployment strategy by giving the state Public Utilities Commission more flexibility to fund private and nonprofit providers that have viable plans to bring broadband to hard-to-reach populations and households.

Already, Valley leaders working with state and federal partners have launched a major CASF-funded broadband project that will traverse 1,371 miles of the Central Valley from Fresno to Plumas counties, in addition to bringing last-mile wireless capability over parts of four counties (Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare). The Central Valley Next Generation Broadband Infrastructure Project was awarded federal grants comprising 70% of the cost of the project, with existing CASF and private local providers investing the rest.

While we are proud of the major work in our region to help close the digital divide, there are still many families in low-income communities whose access to employment and education are limited by the fact they have no broadband at home.

Working together as the San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium, municipal, school, community and nonprofit leaders have received $450,000 in recent years to focus on improving deployment, access and adoption. With additional resources and flexibility provided by SB 740, there would be new opportunities to deliver telehealth and distance learning to these communities via broadband.

In addition, with the importance of agriculture to the Valley’s economic vitality, the broadband consortium is working to increase access so farmers can keep pace with rising global demand for our produce. Already, with over 350 crops, the San Joaquin Valley feeds one-third of the world. Improved broadband technology is poised to significantly increase production, leading to economic growth in the region through GPS-enabled tractors and water-efficient technologies.

Such devices are being deployed in the fields to reduce energy usage for irrigation, with the potential to save the equivalent amount of water in Lake Shasta annually by using water sensors. An even more efficient use of water is to put moisture sensors beneath individual trees, such as olives and almonds, so that each tree gets the right amount of moisture. Both of these require something that many rural parts of the Valley lack: wireless connectivity.

As Internet usage and technology become further integrated into our daily lives, it is critical that Valley residents are not left behind. The passage of SB 740 is critical to our strategic effort to increase broadband deployment to ensure that our region remains globally competitive and offers the digital connections necessary to grow our economy and improve our quality of life.