How California’s ‘once-in-a-century’ broadband investment plan could go wrong – The Markup

How California’s ‘once-in-a-century’ broadband investment plan could go wrong – The Markup

How California’s ‘once-in-a-century’ broadband investment plan could go wrong – The Markup

Hello everyone,

I’m Ko, an investigative editor. You may remember the news of our merger with the nonprofit newsroom CalMatters. We’ve taken a brief break from Hello World over the past two weeks to officially integrate into a team of nearly 100 people. As we settle into our new home, it’s been heartening to see the synergy of our newsrooms speak for itself. That’s perhaps clearest in a story published this week by CalMatters’ first technology reporter, Khari Johnson, who dug into California’s effort to distribute $1.8 billion to increase internet access in the state that may have been doomed from the start.

At The Markup, our award-winning Still Loading series found that major internet service providers in 38 major cities were offering low-income, less white, and historically underserved neighborhoods slow internet for the same price as the fast internet they offered in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Now, as federal money from a $42.5 billion fund flows to states through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, we’re also following how this process plays out.

BEAD funding is designed to subsidize telecommunications companies to build new broadband networks in parts of the country that lack infrastructure. States are at various points in planning how to distribute the funds. Using maps that the Federal Communications Commission compiled from data from Internet service providers, Californians will work to make the maps as accurate as possible through a challenge process that runs from July 8 to Aug. 5. The final maps will determine whether those most in need will have Internet infrastructure in their homes. But advocates say the Internet access maps are wildly inaccurate.

Only local and tribal governments, internet service providers and advocacy groups can demand changes to the map. Khari said that in order for a California citizen to challenge that their internet access does not match what appears on the map, one of these groups must verify the evidence the individual has gathered and claim their challenge. Otherwise, state and federal agencies will not recognize it.

To successfully challenge internet speeds, a person must take speed tests three times a day over a three-day period 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 that the challenge process is short, arduous and unfairly places the burden of proving that inaccuracy on people in unserved or underserved areas. They warn that this could result in once-in-a-generation money being wasted.

By visiting California’s online BEAD funding portal, you can see if your home or nearby community institutions are designated as eligible for funding and if the map incorrectly indicates your area has internet access or adequate internet speed. The same portal allows visitors to perform speed tests.

Educators are particularly concerned about this funding. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Fresno Unified School District teachers began teaching remotely, Philip Neufeld, an IT worker for the district and member of the Fresno Coalition for Digital Inclusion, began working to ensure that 70,000 students could get online. He heard stories you may know, too: students going to Taco Bell and McDonald’s to get WiFi to do their homework. Neufeld and a colleague created an open-source tool to collect 14 million speed tests in Fresno over a two-year span.

“This shows that it’s not just people in rural areas who have a real need for better internet connectivity,” he said. “It’s people living in low-income urban neighborhoods, in apartment buildings and mobile home parks, and these patterns are being seen in several large cities that have higher poverty.”

As always, thanks for reading,

By Bragg

Research Editor

The Markup and CalMatters