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Digital Advocates Say California's 'Broadband for All' Initiative Fails to Center Equity

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Portrait of a senior woman working using laptop in residential kitchen
 (MoMo Productions/Getty Images)

California’s Broadband for All initiative aims to connect more people to the internet across the state, but advocates said the program isn’t targeting lower-income communities like East Oakland that need high-speed connections the most.

“Their approach of ‘building everywhere as fast as we can’ privileges communities that have existing infrastructure, and [has] relegated communities that have been neglected for decades to the back of the line,” said Patrick Messac, director of the nonprofit Oakland Undivided.

Construction on a “Middle Mile Network” of fiber-optic cables as part of the Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative, is set to begin in Livermore and Pleasanton by mid-2024 — while Oakland doesn’t have a confirmed start date.

The state does not yet have the funding to complete the later phases of construction, which include cities like Oakland. Still, the California Department of Technology said Gov. Gavin Newsom will announce further plans in January.

In a statement, Oakland officials said the state’s decision to cut a broadband route out of the plan the city had advocated for has also decreased the project’s benefits for residents.

“In the case of the Middle Mile initiative, it appears that the State is prioritizing speed of deployment, more than, say, what communities the network goes through,” a city spokesperson said in the statement.

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An online meeting today will allow residents to learn more about a Digital Equity Plan released this week as part of the Broadband for All initiative.

The equity plan is a requirement for receiving federal funding. In a press release, the Department of Technology said the plan’s goal is to expand internet access “for all residents.”

Messac said that in its current form, the draft Digital Equity Plan and the Broadband for All initiative do not take an equitable approach.

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“Investments and resources should be targeted where the need is most acute,” he said.

Others take a more positive view. Oakland’s Housing Authority recently voted to provide free Wi-Fi for residents in the city’s four largest public housing communities. A spokesperson for the authority said they were encouraged by the state’s Digital Equity Plan draft.

In an email, the spokesperson said, “In addition to the internet, the plan also recognizes the importance of access to adequate devices and meaningful, relevant training to support digital inclusion.”

Oakland officials said they will continue to work with the State to “address digital inequity in Oakland and throughout California.”

The state’s Digital Equity Plan will remain open for public comment through late January 2024. Today’s meeting will review the plan and answer any questions about the public comment process.

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