BizFed INSTITUTE CHALLENGES PUBLIC AND PRIVATE PARTNERS TO BRIDGE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Last Friday, May 21, the BizFed Institute virtually hosted its 2nd Digital Divide Forum. The two hour and forty-five minute program is summarized below along with a link to the full program for viewing.
To kickoff the forum, BizFed Institute President Kevin Harbour announced the results of a Flash Poll of attendees conducted the week before the event. Highlighted findings can be seen below and include the result that most respondents think the federal government should take the lead in solving the Digital Divide. Overwhelmingly, respondents felt that tele-learning (69%) was the greatest factor negatively affected by the Digital Divide and that the priority should be focused on underserved communities. Thank you to Employers Group for their work in facilitating the poll and analyzing the results.
During his Sacramento update, Assemblymember Bill Quirk noted that closing the digital divide is dependent on the community and local government. Local government has the power to accept or reject permits and the objection of the community can stand in the way of tower installation and 5G cell deployment. The Assemblymember talked about his bill AB 537 which if passed would reinforce a previous piece of legislation that automatically passes broadband infrastructure permits if not accepted or rejected by a municipality in a specified time frame. This bill would enforce federal guidelines already in place.
Senatorial Consultant George Soares spoke on behalf of Senator Lena Gonzalez and her series of bills related to broadband infrastructure and funding. SB 378 provides clarity on the permitting of micro-trenching. The bill requires fiber cables to be installed using cost-effective techniques and works to prevent time delays in permitting approvals by providing statewide standards. Opposition from municipality associations has been removed due to recent amendments. The bill has passed the Senate and is moving to the Assembly. SB 4 extends and reforms the California Advanced Series Fund. The bill expands the sunset for 10 years and caps the fund at $100 M per year along with speed upgrades. Mr. Soares also mentioned that the bill allows for, “local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives can get in this space that traditional ISPs cannot serve for business reasons.”
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis summed up the entire digital divide discussion in one word, “equity.” Affordability was a key message in the Supervisor’s remarks, referring multiple times to one’s ability to have “access” to the internet when it comes to cost. Supervisor Solis congratulated the BizFed Institute and Kevin Harbour, BizFed Institute President, for stepping up to lead the Los Angeles/Orange County Regional Broadband Consortia (LA/OCRBC). The Supervisor also acknowledged her official support of the project, which will bring community stakeholders together to improve broadband connectivity for all in the given jurisdictions.
Los Angeles/Orange County Regional Broadband Consortia
The BizFed Institute is leading the new LA/OCRBC, a coalition of education, government, business, housing, healthcare and community-based nonprofits dedicated to solving the digital divide. Mr. Harbour made a presentation that highlighted the Consortia and its partners. Consortia executive committee members include:
- the Southeast Community Development Corporation,
- Manchester Community Technologies,
- the Orange County Business Council,
- the Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed),
- the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG),
- the Los Angeles County Office of Education,
- LA Care,
- National Community Renaissance,
- the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works,
- the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation
- and the Los Angeles County Internal Services Department.
The LA/OCRBC recently formed to replace a previous local Consortia and has submitted an application for funding to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to identify gaps in coverage and assist with infrastructure development. In addition to the work outlined in the CPUC proposal, the LA/OCRBC is developing programs and accessing grant funds to promote digital equity and inclusion. One step toward this is being a signatory to the California Emerging Technology Fund Digital Equity Bill of Rights and working to engage in Digital Literacy training for both students and families.
Broken up over three panels, the Digital Divide Forum highlighted the disparity in access and how the divide is a socioeconomic issue.
Panel 1: Public Sector Leadership
Kome Ajise, SCAG Executive Director broke down the economic motivations for ending the digital divide. As Mr. Ajise stated, “affordable, reliable access to broadband would energize the economy.” Mr. Ajise, in his prepared remarks, didn’t stop with the importance of connectivity for Los Angeles’ economy. His view is that the digital divide impacts all Southern Californians. For example, from an environmental perspective, he called broadband a “green technology.” He referenced that by having people tele-work, tele-learn and participate in tele-medicine allows for less vehicles on the road and thereby less air pollution.
Jagjit Dhaliwal, the Deputy Chief Information Officer for the County of Los Angeles gave an update on the County’s Digital Divide Strategic Plan. The BizFed Institute is represented by both Kevin Harbour and Mitchell Vieyra on the strategic plan’s Team Advisory Council. Mr. Dhaliwal explained the County’s siloed efforts to find solutions to the Digital Divide and how the strategic plan will coordinate all of these different departments. He emphasized public private partnerships. A request was made for data to be provided at a “granular level” so that the County can better understand household broadband information. The Deputy Chief Information Officer stated that its not a hard number but instead the capacity to perform well in “zoom calls or tele-health”.
Panel 2: Cross-Sector Perspectives
Michael Kelly, Executive Director, the LA Coalition, kicked off the second panel of the day with representatives from business, community and education. Joseph Rouzan, President/CEO, the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation (VSEDC), pointed out the lack of information technology and computer science training in the South Los Angeles region. His organization is constructing a youth technology center to equip South LA students with the necessary skills to develop a different level of innovation. In Mr. Rouzan’s opinion, the next Mark Zuckerburg or Elon Musk will come from South LA. From the small business perspective, the VSEDC leader boldly stated that broadband affordability and access is almost as important as access to capital in today’s digital divide age.
Laserfiche’s CEO Chris Wacker sees the Digital Divide as an issue that affects the nation’s GNP. He said that by providing affordable access to broadband, people “on the other side,” of the Digital Divide will participate in the online economy with companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook being the beneficiaries. Mr. Wacker made a point of stating that there is a need to recruit those locked out by the Digital Divide. There was an emphasis on every part of the population having something to offer and that the future of our country is in information technology. Mr. Wacker advocated for incentives to the technology sector to fund broadband and thereby innovation to lead the world.
In his opening remarks, Greg Lindner, Chief Technology Officer, Los Angeles County Office of Education, spoke on ways the region’s school districts have adapted during this past year. To master instruction in digital literacy, teachers have the opportunity to attend a week long certification program. Schools have needed an increase in bandwidth with wifi needs growing because of more 1 to 1 devices. Mr. Lindner stated that “many students don’t have access at home.” The County of Los Angeles stepped in with devices to try and close the gap that exists. Over 11,000 iPads, 37,000 Chromebooks, 37,000 hotspots with 1 year of service have been handed out. The question is what will be done when these subscriptions run out at the end of this year.
Panel 3: Beyond the Digital Divide
Wrapping up the discussion, Brenda Trainor, MADIA Tech Launch Board Member, led a conversation with representatives from two Internet Service Providers (Verizon and Charter Communications) and the nation’s largest provider of shared communications infrastructure – towers, fiber and small cells (Crown Castle).
Rudy Reyes, Verizon’s West Region Vice President and Associate General Counsel explained the digital divide issue as having three interrelated aspects, what he called the “three-legged stool” of increasing broadband access, adoption and affordability. Mr. Reyes indicated that unserved and underserved communities are demanding access to reliable, affordable high-speed broadband just as much if not more so than in wealthy neighborhoods. This demand coupled with new “last-mile” innovations in wireless technology such as 5G make investment a “win-win” business decision in addition to doing what is necessary to end the digital divide.
Whitney O’Neill, Senior Director – State Government Affairs West Region, Charter Communications mentioned that there is often conflation between internet access and adoption barriers, emphasizing the importance of focusing on affordability. Ms. O’Neill stated that in Los Angeles there is a very competitive marketplace and she recognized, “broadband infrastructure and access [as] a tool for equity.”
Scott Longhurst, Government Affairs Manager, Crown Castle warned against “overbuilding” infrastructure development throughout the region and spoke on the importance of finding qualified talent in the industry. Mr. Longhurst was positive though in his outlook on a “myriad of opportunities to work with the public sector.”
All three companies emphasized the importance of targeting government funding to unserved and underserved areas and not picking technology-specific “winners and losers”. They stated that as an industry there has been huge private investment to expand coverage and adoption and drive better price/quality outcomes for consumers using the latest technologies.
Jonathan Parfrey, BizFed Institute Chair and Executive Director of Climate Resolve, wrapped it up best in saying that, “we need to streamline governmental approvals for multi-modal installations.” The Institute calls for affordable broadband, full access and maximized adoption in every neighborhood.
BizFed Institute President