When California unanimously passed S.B. 156 in 2021, we embarked on a multi-year, multi-billion dollar endeavor to bring affordable, 21st-century fiber to every Californian. Done correctly, this nearly $7 billion investment—further supplemented by $ 1.8 billion in federal funding—would help eliminate the digital divide in California. We are on the verge of squandering this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Last month, without public input or notice, the California Department of Technology changed its map outlining which communities get "middle mile" infrastructure, which we'll explain in more detail below. The department reduced its plan from building 10,000 miles of fiber to 8,300 miles. In many cases, this entirely cuts off many communities with the greatest need for access.  These uninformed cuts to critical infrastructure will drastically raise the cost of building high-speed, high-capacity internet networks in unserved and underserved neighborhoods. It also jeopardizes the funds these communities need to build these networks. These changes run counter to the purpose of S.B. 156 and all efforts to close the digital divide.

The Importance of Middle Mile

What is the middle mile? To understand, it helps to think of broadband infrastructure like a public road system. Local streets connect residential areas to the main streets and highways. These main streets and highways, built for higher speeds and capacity, connect people, goods, and services to one another over long distances.

In broadband, those main streets and highways are what is considered the “middle mile.” The local roads connecting to each individual home and business are the “last mile.”

Being far from your local main street or highway is an inconvenience for commuting and travel. Generally, though, there is an expectation that some local residential road will connect you to a larger road that gets you where you need to go. But for broadband, lacking a nearby middle mile connection usually means there is no adequate last mile connecting a community to the broader internet infrastructure. It’s the equivalent of having no road, or a road so old and poorly maintained it may as well not be a road at all.

As we’ve noted in the past, monopolistic national internet service providers (ISPs) have proven time and again that they are unwilling to build into low-income communities. Their investment strategy, which favors a fast 3-5 year return over long-term investment, deems these areas too expensive. So while these ISPs build their own middle-mile and last-mile fiber infrastructure to serve higher-income communities, at least one would rather declare bankruptcy than deploy fiber in poor rural communities. The same holds true for low-income access in urban communities.

Seeing this, the legislature passed S.B. 156 to build the middle mile network in consultation with communities. Then, with close access to a middle mile network, the communities themselves can develop and build their own locally appropriate last mile. 

The New Middle Mile Maps Perpetuate the Digital Divide

The California Department of Technology’s new middle mile map runs directly counter to those goals. It omits much of the middle mile it previously promised to build through low-income communities. Now, communities that already did not have the internet main streets needed to build last-mile roads are once again being kept off the digital map.

The department has said it cut back the middle mile network because inflation has increased building costs. This may very well be true. It does not, however, explain their decision-making concerning where cuts ought to be made.

(Screenshot of graphic from California Community Foundation, taken from California Department of Technology’s Statewide Middle Mile Network Map)

Consider the above comparison of the Department of Technology’s middle mile network maps in Los Angeles before and after the change. Originally, middle mile networks would have been built into historically low-income communities and low-income communities of color in South LA and Southeast LA. In the new map, those segments are cut out in favor of a new segment running through Beverly Hills.

This kind of decision-making is replicated across the state in urban and rural communities alike. To those working within the communities with the most need, these maps look less like painful cuts made because of economic necessity and more like modern-day redlining.

Proponents of the new map note that many communities of need are still within five miles of the middle mile, and so would still be able to build and serve their communities. But when the greatest cost to connecting folks is the infrastructure, every mile counts. The big national ISPs have already built out much infrastructure to more affluent communities but not to low-income communities. Without a push from the state, it's unlikely anyone will spend the money to serve these communities.

These Maps Waste Community Time and Government Money

There's another reason the changes to the maps make no sense: the state has already sent money to communities that are now off the map.S.B. 156 set aside 50 million dollars for Local Agency Technical Assistance (LATA) Grants for local entities to conduct research and create plans on where to build their last mile based on the Department of Technology’s middle mile map. Those funds were disbursed more than a year ago and local entities, working off the Department’s previous map which was also released more than a year ago, spent the last year crafting their plans accordingly.

With their understanding of the middle mile map—and thus their plan—pulled out from under them, many communities are also no longer in the position to apply for $2 billion in funds to build their own last-mile infrastructure. Yet the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is continuing to accept applications for that funding and stick to their self-imposed deadline of September 2023 despite the fact that many communities’ plans are no longer viable. Combined with the CPUC’s current unwillingness to change its deadline, these communities will not even have time to revise whatever parts of their plans remain viable. If these entities are not able to apply, money that should have gone to those communities with the most need will not, leaving them behind.

The Department’s abrupt, new map derails many of the plans made by organizations which represent low-income communities of color who have suffered most from redlining. Most obviously, this is a waste of government money. It is also a waste of community time and energy that was all premised on the government’s own words and original maps, which it is now backtracking from. 

The Intergenerational Consequence of Bad Maps

Inaccurate maps have long plagued equitable broadband deployment. However, with the amount of funding soon to be made available, the California Department of Technology’s middle mile map could threaten to turn inaccuracy into intergenerational discrimination.

And these maps don't only affect this funding. These communities will be left even further behind when California receives its promised $1.8 billion in federal Broadband Equity Access and Development Program (BEAD) funding. This funding will be determined, in part, by where the middle mile is. If those communities with the most need are left far away from the middle mile, they're less likely to get additional funding. And even if they get money, those dollars will not be able to go as far as they should.

We have the funds to basically eliminate the digital divide in California. With the right planning and coordination, we can do it. The California Department of Technology’s abrupt release of new middle mile maps not only runs counter to the mandate of S.B. 156 and the Biden Administration’s BEAD program but also threatens to squander billions of dollars and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to close the digital divide. It is unclear when communities will ever have the opportunity for this level of funding from California and the federal government in the future. Failure to spend the money coming in now to close the divide will only lock inequity in for decades to come.

We urge the California Department of Technology to work with those on the ground to create equitable middle-mile maps that close as opposed to widen the digital divide.

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