April 13, 2024
Administration, Public Utilities Commission turning COVID-era promise into reckless spending of billions of dollars.

In the summer of 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom held a press event at a rural elementary school in Tulare County to tout his signing of a bill that he said would help close the digital divide.

The COVID lockdown and school closures had laid bare the struggles of residents of the state’s rural regions and low-income urban neighborhoods to access high-speed internet service that has become critical to our daily lives.

Now, two years later, his administration and the California Public Utilities Commission, whose leadership Newsom has appointed, have turned the governor’s promise of bridging digital inequality into a wasteful and reckless allocation of billions of dollars.

Unless Newsom rights this ship quickly, it threatens to become another shameful California boondoggle piled on top of the state’s botched effort to bring its computerized budgeting system into the 21st century, dysfunctional unemployment agency, and wasteful bullet train program.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature should demand an immediate audit of the internet program and the recent changes that undermine the stated goal of equitable access.

Well before the pandemic, high-speed internet was already critical for education, access to health care, conducting business and basic entertainment. COVID exponentially increased the need.

At that 2021 bill signing in Tulare County, Newsom laid out a $6 billion program to bridge the divide.

First, there would be construction of a state-owned “middle-mile” network, overseen by the Newsom administration’s California Department of Technology, to lay high-capacity fiber lines along the state’s major freeways and other thoroughfares.

Second, there was funding for the “last-mile” broadband connections to homes and networks. The CPUC is responsible for doling out that portion of the funding through a competitive proposal process.

But the “last-mile” is really a misnomer. It’s really the last however many miles are needed to connect homes to the major freeway network. So the closer the “middle-mile” network gets to the neediest neighborhoods, the less money required for the “last-mile” section.

Given that there’s not limitless funding, one would think that the Department of Technology would carefully calibrate where it lays the major lines to minimize the CPUC’s last-mile costs and ensure the most efficient spending of all the funding.

It turns out that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the Department of Technology has laid out routing based on CPUC maps that supposedly show where the greatest need is — but which even the CPUC admitted to us are badly flawed.

And when inflation ate away at how far the middle-mile funding would go, the Department of Technology continued to rely on the flawed maps to determine where cuts would be made.

The result was that Oakland saw its funding projection slashed by 56% and South Central Los Angeles by 77% — versus an overall statewide reduction of 17%. Meanwhile, for example, wealthy Bay Area suburbs that are already well-served with high-speed internet saw no cuts.

When we looked at the planned cuts to the original program, it seemed that they were thoughtlessly made. Our conversation this past week with Mark Monroe, the department’s deputy director in charge of the middle-mile program, solidified that impression.

Monroe, working from Sacramento, had no understanding of the Bay Area, nor why, for example, running fiber-optic line down Interstate 680 from Walnut Creek to Dublin would do little to reach those most in need of high-speed internet access.

And he seemed unconcerned that trimming back the middle-mile service in Oakland would increase the last-mile costs, overseen by the CPUC, for serving some of the Bay Area’s most impoverished areas.

Then, when we turned to Rob Osborn, director the CPUC’s telecommunications division, to talk about the effect of the middle-mile cuts on his part of the program, he essentially told us it wasn’t his issue.

“I can’t speak to the tradeoffs that were made” by the Department of Technology, he said.

So, to summarize: The Department of Technology blames its middle-mile decisions on the CPUC’s maps, even though everyone knows they’re faulty. And the CPUC is indifferent to the effect of those reckless decisions on the cost of the program it operates.

It’s bureaucracy run amok, with billions of dollars at stake.

The governor is the only person with the political clout to make these two state agencies come out of their silos and work in the best interest of those most in need — to bridge the digital divide, as he promised. Newsom owns this program; the question now is whether he’s going to fix it.

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