Will Riverside County’s Digital Divide Really Close?

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"Without expansion of broadband access, we don't close the 'digital divide,'" Supervisor Chuck Washington said. "Some kids still don't have access to the internet." (Freepik)

The County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution Tuesday that supports increased efforts to expand broadband internet access.

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a resolution declaring Riverside County‘s intent to join six other Southern California counties in calling for increased efforts to expand broadband internet access to the farthest reaches of the region to ensure all residents can get online. “Without expansion of broadband access, we don’t close the ‘digital divide,'” Supervisor Chuck Washington said. “Some kids still don’t have access to the internet.”

Department of Information Technology Director Tom Mullen told the board that moves are afoot throughout the region and state to “bring broadband access to underserved communities.” The California Broadband Council is preparing a master plan to submit to the governor before the end of the month, he said, and that will likely be followed by legislation funding the initial stages of a build-out. “Mobile home parks, rural areas, even urban centers (stand to benefit),” Mullen said. In 2016, the board approved a proposal for a public-private partnership titled “RIVCOconnect,” under which a countywide high-speed internet system would be constructed, ultimately covering all 7,200 square miles of the county.

The ambitious endeavor envisioned 1-gigabyte-per-second connectivity via fiber optic cables and was projected to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion. However, only two entities tentatively responded to the county’s offer to partner. The idea has been on the shelf for the last three years. Mullen said one of the challenges has been obtaining privileged information from telecommunications firms, including AT&T, Charter and Frontier, regarding their existing networks and how far they extend. “They are unwilling to share the data with us,” he said. “But the California Public Utilities Commission is now requesting that level of detail.”

Supervisor Karen Spiegel said there are “gaps all over the county,” and she urged the Department of Information Technology to enlist support from special districts to identify cellphone towers that might be utilized to aid in “signal boosting.” “By working together, this could be very beneficial,” she said. “This is very timely.” The Southern California broadband initiative additionally involves Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. “Upon identifying broadband opportunity zones, (this resolution) supports … a regional effort that would allow local jurisdictions to develop specific rules to expedite low-cost broadband deployment by internet service providers,” according to proposal.

Because of the coronavirus public health shutdowns and more people — especially children whose schools are shuttered — staying home, greater access to high-speed broadband networks has been accentuated. “High-speed broadband service is important to all residents, businesses and institutions, and it is desirable where residents and visitors work, live, learn and play,” according to the resolution.

-CNS

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