CVIndependent

Tue09222020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Happy Monday, everyone.

I’d like to start off the week, to use that old cliché, by tooting our own horn and shining a spotlight on two recent Independent stories.

The first one, posted at CVIndependent.com earlier today, looks at the fact that thousands of Coachella Valley families lack reliable internet access—which presents big problems, especially in the middle of a pandemic, when students can’t go to physical schools.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap,” said local Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. “Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

In addition to Garcia, staff writer Kevin Fitzgerald talked to all three local school district superintendents, as well as a community-broadband expert, for the 2,200-word-plus piece. (One flaw: We didn’t talk to any students. Kevin was working on tracking down a student or two, but we ran out of time before our July print-edition deadline hit.)

The problem is especially pronounced in the east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District, which partnered with the city of Coachella to buy thousands of Verizon Wireless mobile hotspots to make some progress.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting.”

While Kevin talked to at least five people for his story, Independent music contributor Matt King only talked to two for his story, posted on Friday, about live music at restaurants in the era of COVID-19—because four restaurants we reached out to never returned our various messages.

California’s guidelines for bars and restaurant re-openings make it very clear that, for now, concerts and performances are a no-no. “Restaurants, bars and wineries must discontinue this type of entertainment until these types of activities are allowed to resume modified or full operation,” say the state guidelines.

Nonetheless, some local restaurants have brought live music back to their stages—while others are doing the right thing and following the guidelines, even if it affects their bottom line. Matt reached out to five restaurants that have touted live music on social media—and only Lana Ristich, the owner of Chef George’s Restaurant in Bermuda Dunes, got back to us.

“Virus is virus,” Ristich said. “I know it’s killing people, but people still have to live their life. If someone is sick, they are not going to go out. Older people should stay home, but younger generations with better immune systems might get sick from something worse by just staying home.”

Meanwhile, at The Hood Bar and Pizza—one of the valley’s foremost entertainment venues during “normal” times—owner Brad Guth is choosing to follow the guidelines.

“I take both my health and the health of my employees and customers very seriously,” Guth said. “The county is discouraging large crowds, and we are doing the same. We’ve cut hours and limited space, and we just want people to be safe.”

As always, if you have any thoughts on these stories, or anything else we do, drop me a line—and thanks for reading.

Today’s news links:

The latest countywide hospitalization stats are, well, still not great. It’s too early to call what’s happening a “spike,” and the county as a whole is tiptoeing close to the state’s watch-list metrics … but the trend isn’t good.

The latest District 4 report (including the Coachella Valley and points eastward), covering the week ending yesterday, is a mixed bag. I must admit I find these reports confusing, but here’s what it says: The weekly local positivity rate is a still-too-high 14.6 percent, but it’s down from the 16 percent reported the week before. The number of new local cases dropped significantly to 292 (from 771, 942 and 1,182 in previous weeks), with 6,073 new tests reported. So, there ya go.

As for local hospitalization numbers: They’re slowly but steadily rising. We went from 106 local confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday, to 108 in Friday, 113 on Saturday, and 116 on Sunday. Not a “spike” but not good. Wear a damn mask.

The San Francisco Chronicle profiled eight people who got sick with COVID-19, but have recovered … at least somewhat. These stories show how this disease isn’t just a bad flu—instead, it’s unpredictable and often permanently damaging.

• The feared increase in coronavirus cases due to the Black Matters Lives protests has not yet materialized … yet. MedPage Today talks to some experts who explain what this all could mean. (Spoiler alert: Staying outside + wearing a mask = prevention?)

• Speaking of wearing face coverings … NPR looks at the science and the anecdotal data, and concludes that mask-wearing is somewhere between helpful and a pandemic game-changer

• Again speaking of wearing face coverings … the local convention and visitors bureau is pleading with local businesses to insist that customers wear masks and take other precautions—and is asking those local businesses to take the “Safer Together, Greater Together” pledge. The Independent has done so, for the record.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said today that more than a third of California’s COVID-19 cases have come in the last two weeks. While this is a big reminder that we’re still very much in the first wave of this pandemic, the news—at least on a statewide level—is not all bad.

Riverside County is going to contact 3,500 random residents and ask them to take part in an antibody study. “We are asking those who are contacted to strongly consider taking part in the study,” said Kim Saruwatari, director of Riverside County Public Health, in a news release. “It’s important to know the extent of the spread of the virus. … That information is vital as we move forward.” Get more details here.

• This is dense but important: A nonprofit called the Open Technology Fund acts as an intermediary between the U.S. government—specifically the US Agency for Global Media—and vitally important open-source tech tools. Well, it appears the Trump administration is attempting to steer funding away from that agency—and direct it toward closed-sourced (read: corporate) companies. As a result, the agency’s head has resigned, and a whole bunch of nonprofits are very worried.

• The state tourism bureau claims that California could lose more than $2 billion in revenue from travelers through mid-July who opt to go to more-open neighboring states like Nevada and Arizona.

The New York Times looks at the wildly varying costs of COVID-19 tests. Key quote, regarding how some unscrupulous companies are spending our tax dollars: “Insurers have paid Gibson Diagnostic Labs as much as $2,315 for individual coronavirus tests. In a couple of cases, the price rose as high as $6,946 when the lab said it mistakenly charged patients three times the base rate. The company has no special or different technology from, say, major diagnostic labs that charge $100. It is one of a small number of medical labs, hospitals and emergency rooms taking advantage of the way Congress has designed compensation for coronavirus tests and treatment.”

Also from The New York Times comes this head-shaker of a headline: “Coronavirus Attacks the Lungs. A Federal Agency Just Halted Funding for New Lung Treatments. The shift, quietly disclosed on a government website, highlights how the Trump administration is favoring development of vaccines over treatments for the sickest patients.”

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. Fight injustice. And please, if you’re going to be anywhere near other people, wear a mask. If you’d like to support local, quality journalism—made free to all, never with paywalls—please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.

When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.

“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.

“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”

This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.

“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”

The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.

“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.

“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”

But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”

At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.

“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.

“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”

Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”

According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”

“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”

However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.

“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”

A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.

“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”

But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.

“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”

Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.

“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.

“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”

Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.

“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”

Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.

“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”

Published in Local Issues

Democratic legislators say they've settled their differences on net neutrality in California, advancing bills that, if passed, would create the most far-reaching internet regulation in the country.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net-neutrality protections that ensured internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T give consumers and partners equal access to the web. It jettisoned those rules as of June, saying they were unnecessary and “heavy-handed” market interference. Critics characterize this as a play by the Trump administration to undermine consumer safeguards.

California—if this bill were to become law—would restore the old nationwide net neutrality regulations within the state.

“The Internet wasn't broken in 2015, when the previous FCC imposed 1930s-era regulations on Internet service providers. And ironically, these regulations made things worse by limiting investment in high-speed networks and slowing broadband deployment,” said the FCC.

Last month, net-neutrality bill author Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said his bill was “gutted” in a committee hearing chaired by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat. Santiago’s committee elbowed through—without time for comment—amendments stripping out key prohibitions, including one designed to block internet providers from charging its customers access fees, and another intended to bar them from creating “zero-rating” services to steer consumers away from competitor content.

In response, Wiener had said he would withdraw the “hijacked” bill if those key protections from the FCC’s regulation were not restored.

After weeks of negotiation along with Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Kevin de Léon, author of a related net neutrality bill in the Senate, and Alameda Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a co-author of Wiener’s bill, announced Thursday, July 5, that they had reached a deal to advance bills they say provide the same protections for Californians that the FCC temporarily provided to all Americans.

“We know that the federal government is not going to fix things in the foreseeable future,” Wiener said.

Without such regulations in place, internet providers would be free to speed up or slow down services like calls or video streaming, based on who pays for “fast lane” access. Advocates say these practices would hurt small businesses and consumers who cannot afford more expensive service. For consumers, that could mean higher prices and fewer choices.

The bills by Wiener and de Léon would ban internet companies from charging businesses access fees in order to reach its online customers.

They also prohibit “zero-rating” services, which allow internet providers to charge consumers for data when accessing competitors’ content, and interference and manipulation at the point where data enters the network. Without that protection, an internet provider could, for instance, slow down competing video applications to give itself a competitive advantage.

“Generally speaking, the bill is great. They are right that it’s the strongest protection in the country … with the three provisions back,” said Ryan Singel, media and strategy fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society.

He added that grassroots organizations and consumers rallying for net-neutrality regulation got legislators to listen. The gutting of Wiener’s bill sparked thousands of calls to legislators, a flood of social media comments and $14,000 in crowdfunding to install a billboard in Santiago’s district.

“Basically, we won. Literally, this is what a grassroots effort looks like. When the internet is mad at you, it’s really loud and really hard to deal with. We had three things we wanted to defend, and we got all of them back,” Singel said.

Democrats know a battle is coming, but are hopeful the bills—assuming they win approval of the full Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature—will stand up to a legal challenge. Republican leaders, however, have warned from the beginning that such regulation will face litigation from internet companies.

“To be clear, we are not out of the woods … This is going to be a fight,” Wiener acknowledged.

The internet giants have denied that they slow down or throttle internet traffic and violate other net neutrality rules. In an open letter earlier this year, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said: “We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate or degrade network performance based on content. Period.”

These providers also argue that net neutrality regulation will drive up their costs to operate in the state. They say rural areas are more expensive to provide service in, and this regulation would discourage expanding broadband service there.

The Internet Association, an organization representing tech companies like Airbnb and Uber, found broadband business did not slow down after the FCC first adopted net-neutrality regulations three years ago. Fixed broadband subscriptions increased 3.5 percent, and wireless broadband subscriptions increased 10 percent from June 2015 to June 2016.

Net-neutrality supporters, including labor groups and technology companies like Amazon and Twitter, say a fair and protected web is crucial for workers and businesses relying on open communication and access to do their jobs. More than 20 states have recently introduced bills meant to reinstate the federal net neutrality protections. Washington and Oregon have already passed legislation.

“California is the world’s fifth largest economy and home to the globe’s most important tech companies,” said Robert Cruickshank, campaigns director of Demand Progress, an internet-activism organization based in Washington, D.C. “Passage of this bill will also give huge new momentum to the effort to get the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the U.S. Senate and restore the net neutrality protections the FCC gutted last winter.”

The bills have passed the Senate and have until Aug. 31 to pass the Assembly and move to the governor for a signature.

“What happens now is good old-fashioned politics—just securing the votes. No more negotiating,” said de Léon.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

With just a week left until the federal government intends to roll back net neutrality, California’s Senate has stepped into the void by advancing a bill that aims to maintain equal internet access for all its citizens.

This fight over who pays for the internet and how it should be regulated now shifts to the Assembly, and if it passes there, on to Gov. Jerry Brown. If he were so sign it, the state would have the strictest net-neutrality rules in the nation—but could well face a court challenge from internet service providers who contend the state is overstepping its authority.

Democrats have been pushing legislation to require internet companies to play by net-neutrality rules ever since the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality last December. The federal regulations, set to be jettisoned June 11, ensured that internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon give equal access to the web, regardless of payment, data or type of service.

The Senate voted this week along party lines to approve Senate Bill 822 by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener. The proposed regulation would prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing down internet traffic for consumers, and also prohibit them from giving priority deals to those who pay for sponsored content.

In recent years, the FCC has found that Comcast and Verizon interfered with access by giving priority to certain users in exchange for compensation.

Internet providers say this sort of regulation will drive up their costs to comply, meaning they would need to charge customers more for internet services. Plus, they note, the proposed California rules would be even more restrictive than the federal rules they aim to replace.

“We need to act at a state level to protect residents, their businesses, our democracy,” Wiener told CALmatters. “When you have internet service providers picking winners or losers on the internet … it impacts everything.”

Everything from startup businesses to brick-and-mortar companies, and from grassroots activism to telemedicine rely on accessing the web, he said, and all users could be impacted when internet providers start manipulating speed, access and prices for consumers.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Kevin De Léon, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced a similar bill that is currently in the Assembly. De Léon’s bill aims to adopt the key parts of neutrality rules established by the federal government in 2015.

Since the FCC repeal, 28 states, including New Jersey and Vermont, have introduced legislation to protect net neutrality, according to a legislative analysis. But Wiener says his bill is more comprehensive than some others by writing rules beyond that of the federal order established three years ago. For instance, it prohibits internet providers from engaging in zero rating—the practice of incentivizing users to use their products rather than their competitors’ in exchange for free data. It would put the state attorney general in charge of enforcing these rules at an annual cost of $1.8 million.

Supporters of net neutrality argue that consumers should be free to choose and access websites as they want, without interference from a handful of internet providers. They also contend that creating different tiers of service would further the digital divide between those can and cannot afford access to the web.

The bill has broad support from labor groups and companies that rely on the internet. Because 87 percent of rural Americans have one or no option for high-speed internet, removing net-neutrality protections would hurt innovation, small businesses and consumers, said the Internet Association, an organization representing members like Amazon and Netflix.

“We use apps to find marches and to meet other activists, to learn about candidates, and to find a movement where we feel represented,” the California Labor Federation said in a statement. “All of this depends upon unfiltered access to the information we seek. That is all this bill will provide.”

The gatekeepers, on the other hand, don’t want more regulation on their businesses. Moreover, internet-service providers and other opponents say a California net neutrality bill would add to their costs of operating in the state. And because it is costlier to provide service in rural areas, the companies say this regulation would discourage broadband investment in those areas.

“Given that providers have finite budgets, and rural areas are generally the most expensive in which to deploy broadband with challenging payback economics, increased regulatory expenditures necessarily drain the capital available for rural broadband deployment,” Frontier Communications wrote in an opposition letter.

Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill insisted that it would increase the costs on internet providers, who would then simply pass those extra costs on to their California customers. Sen. Patricia Bates, a Laguna Niguel Republican, said the debate for net neutrality should take place at the federal level—not here.

“Internet providers are already held legally accountable by the California attorney general and federal government. Ultimately, all this bill will succeed in doing is opening up our state to legal challenges and costly litigation, which we know is coming if the bill is passed,” Bates said.

If the bill makes it out of the Assembly and becomes law, internet-service providers will have to obey these regulations if they want to operate in the state. But they’re unlikely to go down without a fight.

Said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who voted for the bill: “We know the second this thing passes, all the various players ... are going to litigate it.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Since 2007, the California Legislature has worked to encourage the development of telephone and Internet access through the California Advanced Services Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to both large telecommunications companies—including Frontier, AT&T, Charter and Cox—and independent broadband projects driven by community organizations that partner with smaller Internet service providers.

Thanks in part to the fund, the Legislature has grown closer to its goal of deploying broadband Internet service to 98 percent of Californians by 2017. But as the end of 2017 drew closer, many California legislators wanted to update the broadband-support program. The result: AB 1665, aka the Internet for All Now Act, which was authored by eastern Coachella Valley Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

After overwhelming approval in both houses, the bill now sits on the governor’s desk, as of this writing.

“We know that having broadband Internet access improves the state’s economy, enhances educational opportunities, and benefits public safety, (as well as) our medical field and patient care,” Garcia said during a recent phone interview. “Even in the Coachella Valley, civic participation requires a connection to the Internet now. So this law supports a program that invests in and ensures that the infrastructure is in place for the purpose of allowing carriers to connect all these homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, clinics and public safety services in remote areas, allowing them to communicate. It’s vital to what we all do on a daily basis.”

Garcia said the Legislature set the 98 percent connectivity goal about a decade ago. “We have now gotten to about 94 percent or so, and that last (unconnected) percentage happens to be in mostly underdeveloped areas like the eastern Coachella Valley, Imperial County and other rural parts of the state. So that’s what this program will do.”

However, the bill did not make it to the governor’s desk without controversy.

Stephen Blum is an executive team member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, a California Public Utilities Commission-funded group engaged in broadband planning and development in the state, He’s also the president of Tellus Venture Associates, his own broadband-development consulting agency. He is not fan of the Internet for All Now Act version that made it to the governor’s desk.

“There have been attempts in the last legislative session and the two previous sessions to put more money into the (CASF) fund, more or less keeping the program as it was,” Blum said. “This year, things changed. The incumbents (large corporate ISPs) including AT&T, Frontier and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association jumped in and said, ‘We want the bill to be X, Y and Z.’ … Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia took it and started adding language that reflected the desires of these cable and telephone company incumbents.

“The bill went through three revisions, and each time, more perks were added for the incumbents. So as it’s written now, AB 1665 is going to put $300 million into a CASF infrastructure grant account and make it virtually impossible for independent projects to be funded. Essentially, then, it becomes a fund for AT&T and Frontier to use at their discretion.”

Blum said some of the changes made to the act baffled him.

“One of the things this bill does that boggles my mind is it lowers California’s broadband speed levels—and it’s a significant change,” he said. “Right now, an area is fundable if there’s no existing service that provides 6 mbps (megabits per second) download and 1.5 mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard. This bill changes it to 1 mbps up. Now, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is, because the difference between 1.5 or 1 mbps up is the difference between 1990 DSL systems and contemporary copper system architecture and electronics. You can take a 1990 DSL system, do relatively minimal upgrades to it, and reach the 6 down, 1 up speed standard required. You can’t get 6 down, 1.5 up without going in and doing substantial work. That’s the change that AT&T and Frontier pushed very hard for, because that allows them to do minimal upgrades in rural areas to meet their obligations. Now they’re going to have to invest even less money—because the state will pay for it.

“If you’re in an area that falls under the CASF umbrella … you’re looking at a future where you’re going to have service somewhere in the 6 to 10 mbps download range, and 1 mbps upload range, and that’s not going to change for 10 to 20 years, because once this stuff is in, there’s no point in upgrading it.”

Garcia defended the changes made to the bill.

“There are places throughout the state that still have absolutely no Internet service whatsoever,” Garcia said. “The intention of the bill is to get people connected. The debate was: Why would we allow for certain areas that are already connected to increase their speed capacity? We laid out a goal, through a bipartisan effort of Republicans and Democrats from both rural and urban parts of the state, to make sure that the primary focus of this legislation was to serve the unserved populations. We had people push back, saying that we should be trying to get higher network speeds in places that already had connectivity, and we wrestled with that. What we decided is that we could (try for higher network speeds) after we connect everybody to some service in the areas still having no service. So, modifications to the bill were made where we were not able to appease everyone, but get enough support to move the bill forward.”

Another controversial aspect of the bill: For “last mile” projects that connect established “mid-mile” broadband pipelines to end users like homes, hospitals or businesses, those end users will have to participate financially in the funding of their access. Is that reasonable or fair when the target population is disadvantaged?

“The thought was that there should be some investment, or ‘skin in the game,’ on everyone’s part in order to be considered for access to CASF grants, and ultimately be connected,” Garcia responded.

The Independent asked whether there is some sort of means test built into the bill in order for disadvantaged end users to obtain financial support via the CASF.

“There is a means test through the CPUC,” Garcia said. “There was some confusion that this bill was attempting to just give people free Internet access—that it was like a welfare-type of program where if you signed up, you got free Internet. That’s nowhere near the real case. We’re talking about infrastructure being developed, and that makes it that much more accessible for people to connect to some type of broadband service.”

Blum said when we spoke that he was hopeful the legislation was not a done deal.

“When it gets to the governor, I think there’s a conversation to be had at that point,” he said. “We think that’s where the final decision will get made, and we feel that’s still an open question.”

Published in Local Issues

The Coachella Valley Unified School District is doing its best to keep the East Valley connected.

The district—which encompasses 21 schools at the eastern end of the valley from Indio to the Salton Sea—recently announced that the school board had approved the installation of wireless Internet routers on all 100 buses in the district’s fleet. The decision came after a successful pilot program, which began eight months before, with the implementation of Wi-Fi connectivity on three buses.

Also approved was the installation of solar panels on 10 buses in order to extend the routers’ battery life so they can become mobile wireless “hotspots” that will be parked overnight in communities where no wireless access currently exists.

Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams sees this strategy as part of the core service the school district must provide to its students.

“You know every school district eventually is going to have to ensure that students have (continuous Internet) access,” Dr. Adams said.

This innovative program grew out of brainstorming sessions involving Dr. Adams and his administrative team.

“We have a great team working to ensure that our students have Internet access,” Dr. Adams said. “One of the things that I thought of was that we have all these buses, so why can’t we put a router on a bus? That would allow us to park the buses overnight in communities where there was no access. Also, students would be able to connect on the way to school, while on field trips or going to athletic events. So, sometimes when I come up with these crazy ideas, the team will look at you and say, ‘There, he’s lost it again.’ But this time, they said, ‘No. Let’s listen to this. Let’s see if we can do it.’ And, as it turned out, we could actually do it.”

The total first-year cost of the initiative is projected to be $232,065. That includes all hardware, software, installation and connectivity charges. The funding will come solely from the CVUSD budget.

How did the administrative team demonstrate the pilot program’s success to the board? “Because the tech is so new, and the transition into it is new, there’s not a lot of quantifiable data available,” Adams said. “But we looked at the qualitative data through satisfaction surveys and talking to students, and talking to parents, and we got a lot of positives.

“Students have been coming over to the district offices and sitting in the parking lot to connect, or they were going to their school sites and sitting out there to connect. So we knew there had to be a better way.”

A significant part of that “better way” is the mobile-hotspot feature of this program. CVUSD director of technology Michelle Murphy saw the demand very clearly.

“We visited trailer parks and talked to residents, and we found the need to be even greater than we thought,” Murphy said. “They had tried other services that had promised them low fees for connectivity, and they didn’t receive the service that they’d been promised.”

She anticipates that all of the buses will be Wi-Fi operational by Christmas break of 2015.

The new mobile Wi-Fi access is the latest development in the student-connectivity effort that began with the passing of Measure X in CVUSD territory back in 2012. With 67 percent of voters approving, that bond earmarked $42 million to be made available to the school district in segments. The first phase of the program began in 2013 and utilized $20 million to build Wi-Fi connectivity into each school campus, and purchase an iPad for every one of the approximately 19,000 students in the district.

“We plan to refresh (our students’ iPads) every two years to keep up with the changes in technology,” stated Dr. Adams. “We’ll probably use about $5 million for that refreshing program, and that leaves us $15 million. So, we should get to 2021-2022 with this money. And we’re hoping that federal and state governments by that time will give the school districts that money—just like they used to give us textbook money, we’re hoping that they’ll be giving us tech money now to ensure that our students remain connected. Because if they’re not, then the U.S. will be at a disadvantage, since other countries are doing this already.”

Published in Local Issues

On this week's special Easter edition of the Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson examines the rise of groupthink; The K Chronicles ponders the development of the self-shooting gun; The City looks at the aftermath of the Heartbleed debacle; and Red Meat has some problems while decorating Easter eggs.

Published in Comics

On this week's apocalyptic Independent comics page: The City celebrates 25 years of the Internet; Red Meat spends a lonely summer at a white-sand beach; The K Chronicles cracks that whip; and Jen Sorenson puts on her monocle and examines the history of spectacles.

Published in Comics