Only 43 Percent of California’s Rural Residents Have Broadband Internet Access - Pacific Standard

Only 43 Percent of California’s Rural Residents Have Broadband Internet Access

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Investing in broadband infrastructure for California’s farmers could potentially bring significant benefits to the the nation’s consumers and the state’s economy.

By Rick Paulas

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Hills in California’s Central Valley. (Photo: __piq/3671406260/Flickr)

When you think of California, you think of its mystic coastline and majestic natural parks. You think of San Francisco’s foggy hills and the glimmering sprawl of Los Angeles. Maybe you think of the missions, or the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or the hippies, or the redwoods, or the empty cul-de-sacs of McMansions in Orange County.

What you don’t tend to think about is the huge oval between the Sierra Nevadas and the Coastal Ranges—the 200,000-square-mile swath that encompasses Redding, Stockton, Sacramento, Bakersfield, and the farmland in between. This is California’s Central Valley, one of the most important agricultural regions in the world, where more than 250 crops are grown and nearly a quarter of the country’s food supply is produced.

And yet, there’s barely any Internet access.

According to a 2016 report by the California Public Utilities Commission, while 95 percent of households in the state have access to broadband, only 43 percent of the rural population — most of which resides in the Central Valley — have the same access. Of the 100 largest cities in the United States, Stockton has the highest percentage of dial-up Internet households. And it’s not just California; more than half of rural American lacks broadband.

This lack of coverage makes sense through the lens of the marketplace. There are 6.5 million people living in the Central Valley, accounting for only 17 percent of the California’s population, and they’re spread pretty far out from one another: It costs more to get each subscriber hooked up. “It’s a return on investment,” says Mike Dozier, executive director of Fresno State University’s Office of Community and Economic Development. “Why would [ISPs] put millions worth of infrastructure and not get the subscriptions and monthly payments they get in the urban areas or more affluent areas?”

“If it costs less to produce a given piece of fruit or vegetable, that has real value. And productivity in the economy ends up having a benefit to the residents as a whole.”

But ISPs also go one step further than inaction. Big ones have blocked attempts to subsidize development in the state’s rural areas.

In 2014, a $138 million initiative dubbed Golden Bear Broadband was set to bring high-speed broadband to about 150,000 rural households throughout the state. But after three years of development, incumbent carriers challenged the grant on the claims that “some geographical areas already have service, or that proposed construction would simply replicate existing infrastructure and thus not warrant public subsidies.” Those challenges were enough to scuttle the entire project.

Other subsidies and forms of public assistance have subsequently been used to fill in the gaps. Many libraries, schools, and other public agencies in the area are hooked up, but these options have limited hours and access points. “A lot of time you can’t get on because it’s too crowded,” Dozier says. “Or even to get to the public libraries, they just don’t have the transportation.” Potential assistance may lurk in the ancillary benefits of California’s high-speed rail project, in which stations throughout the Central Valley would be designed as “digital hubs” for fiber line backbone. But those won’t be ready to go until 2029. As of now, there’s just no good strategy for bringing broadband to an area that desperately needs it.

But hooking up agricultural communities isn’t just some vague moral imperative. Sure, delivering broadband will allow families to more easily apply to schools, complete homework, consume news and entertainment, and access many of the other benefits that we, the connected, enjoy. But beyond those altruistic aims is the fact that it’s bad business for anyone who buys food. Meaning, all of us.

Bringing broadband capabilities to farms would allow advances in irrigation technology, more accurate predictions of weather conditions, the utilization of drones to help better identify crop conditions,and even the proliferation of self-driving tractors through GPS and satellite technology. Those advances could lead to a more productive agricultural marketplace.

“A farmer can use less resources and get a higher yield,” says Sunne McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund. “If it costs less to produce a given piece of fruit or vegetable, that has real value. And productivity in the economy ends up having a benefit to the residents as a whole.”

Despite the state being known for Silicon Valley, Hollywood, oil, and tourism, a huge chunk of the state’s economy — and therefore the country’s, (seeing as California has the 6th highest gross domestic product in the world) — is based on agriculture, which accounted for $47 billion in exports in 2015. Upping rural California’s broadband availability could increase that figure substantially.

Delivering access to the Central Valley isn’t just doing these unfortunate tech stragglers a favor. It’s doing what’s in all of our best economic interests.

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