May 28, 2024
"Someone's giving really piss-poor advice," said one internet expert about California's sudden erasure of Oakland in its broadband expansion project.

OAKLAND — The mission was supposed to be simple: At a moment when millions of students were being educated exclusively online, California’s leaders decided that high-speed internet should be available everywhere, even in places where residents struggle to afford it.

So in 2021 the state directed millions in federal pandemic relief dollars and other funding– a total of $3.87 billion — to bridge the “digital divide” by installing fiber-optic cables that would bring high-speed internet to neighborhoods where it did not exist.

Two years later, those ambitious plans appear to have been slashed disproportionately, threatening to leave some urban communities, including East Oakland and South Central Los Angeles, further behind.

What was originally intended to be 28 miles of fiber connectivity along I-580, I-980 and State Route 185 — the last of which doubles as International Boulevard in Oakland — have been consolidated into a single strand that runs south of Lake Merritt and no longer cuts through the flatlands of East Oakland.

“A lot of it is just good old-fashioned redlining,” said Shayna Englin, a director with the Digital Equity Initiative, based in Los Angeles. “There are politics and relationships at play, who’s in the room for this complicated and massive set of data and decisions that all have to be made really, really quickly about a ton of money.”

The sociological disparities that exist in an increasingly digital world are well understood by East Oakland teenagers who entered their freshman year at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience remotely, relying on school-issued Chromebooks to get through those crucial, early high school years.

The students, who live with larger families in smaller spaces, are acquainted with the realities of how WiFi bandwidth suffer when five siblings hop on different Zoom classes or a teacher texts a student about how their assignments aren’t sending digitally.

“I’d drop off of calls all the time — and I missed a considerable amount of eighth grade because of that,” said Santiago Preciado-Cruz, a high-school junior who attends after-school courses at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

Life Academy of Health and Bioscience junior Emeline Gutierrez talks about internet access during an interview on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Meanwhile, wealthier East Bay suburbs such as Walnut Creek, Livermore and San Ramon are still slated for broadband expansion, despite having markedly more residents already accessing high-speed internet — confirmed by a scan of Comcast’s Xfinity subscriber map.

Observers across the state have characterized the funding cuts, which state officials blame on rising inflation costs, as part of a larger history in which inner city neighborhoods are starved of investment because there aren’t profits to be made there.

In other words, the reason Oakland saw its funding projection slashed by 56% and South Central Los Angeles by 77% — versus an overall statewide reduction of 17% — may be due to private telecommunications companies wanting to avoid areas where people can’t afford subscription costs, according to multiple experts closely following the public spending cuts.

The state’s strategy for closing the internet gap was two-pronged: There is the “middle mile,” where broadband is expanded in a neglected area sandwiching two connected ones, and the “last mile,” which anchors these communities to the larger internet backbone built out along major interstate highways.

These ideas don’t surface in the mainstream because, typically, people only stop to think about high-speed internet on the days they cannot access it.

Without the infrastructure in place, Oakland schools and their affiliated nonprofits are left to distribute physical hotspots, which resemble portable chargers, to thousands of students who need to connect to a cellular network when their low-speed networks sputter and freeze.

For a generation of kids who supposedly live online, even watching Netflix is a hard-earned process of starts and stops. “It depends on the night,” said Emeline Gutierrez, another Life Academy student. FaceTime calls are mostly a non-starter.

Such digital inequities are not reflected on California utility officials’ latest map of planned broadband access points, which are informed by data collected by the state from private internet service providers — the details of which are not viewable by the public.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta speaks during a news conference in Dublin, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“These maps woefully understate the connectivity issues that I know to be true in my city,” Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao wrote in a letter earlier this month to the California Department of Technology after the broadband maps were released.

Rob Bonta, the state’s attorney general, echoed the concerns in a letter of his own, which points out that the state’s latest maps prioritize communities “that already enjoy multiple options for affordable high-speed internet due to decades of private broadband investment.”

Requests for an interview with officials in that department, and at the California Public Utilities Commission, were not returned by the publishing deadline.

Why isn’t the issue more prominent? For one, digital experts are hesitant to speculate about why the state would suddenly ignore these urban neighborhoods, since there’s no clear evidence that utility officials are being lobbied by internet service providers.

“From my perspective, and I’ve built networks across the world, someone’s giving really piss-poor advice,” said Danny Allen, a former official at the SAP software company whose organization, Golden State Net, works to fund middle-mile broadband access. “The maps are out of date — they’re delusional — and they’re ignoring areas that would be too expensive to serve.”

The basic infrastructure — whether it’s fiber-optic, cable wiring or something else — won’t be installed unless internet providers are confident they can pass the costs onto the end user, or, crucially, if the state intervenes.

“The cost of urban buildout is much more complex than digging out a trench in farmland along a state highway,” said Patrick Messac, who heads the digital equity nonprofit #OaklnadUndivided. “It’s a matter of urgency, and this one-time federal and state funding might not come around again once it’s spent.”

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