The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is for families to have a high-speed internet connection at home, and the educational, economic and social disadvantages faced by those who don’t. Some local governments in Orange County aim to solve this problem by building their own municipal broadband networks. However, if we truly want to bridge our region’s digital divide, we need to know what’s really keeping families from getting online, and utilize every solution possible to bring high-speed internet to every home.
Much of the conversation about digital inclusion mistakenly focuses on internet “access.” The vast majority of Californians (96.3 percent) have the infrastructure for internet accesswhere they live, but this is not the issue for the households in Orange County without an internet connection. Even though the price of broadband overall has gone down over the past year, the biggest obstacle facing the 14.3 percent of Californians with access but no connection is cost.
It’s alarming, then, to consider that municipal broadband networks, when not thought through, can actually exacerbate this issue, costing a city’s low-income residents more as they pay higher taxes and utility rates to subsidize government-run internet providers. Maintaining a broadband network that will serve the community for years is a costly and complex endeavor. These networks require 24/7 monitoring, maintenance and constant infrastructure upgrades, not to mention the ability to respond to customer service requests. For perspective: Cox Communications has already invested more than $15 billion in its communities, including Orange County, and is in the middle of a five-year, $10 billion investment project to upgrade its network.
The historic federal funding that local governments are relying on to build municipal broadband networks is not guaranteed in a new presidential administration. And, if cities build it, there is no guarantee that people will come and provide the revenue needed to keep them running. Are Orange County cities that have launched or begun assessing how to create their own municipal broadband network truly prepared for the continuous investment that is needed to deliver internet services to their communities?
In rural areas, local governments should absolutely focus on building infrastructure and exploring every possible option to get rural communities connected. However, building a municipal broadband network in urban and suburban areas where people already have access to multiple networks does not address the problem, and will ultimately cost residents far more if it’s not done carefully.
To bridge our digital divide and ensure high speed internet connectivity for all, we cannot put all our eggs in the municipal broadband basket. We need to tap into the impactful, cost-effective digital inclusion resources and programs already available to low-income households.
Public-private partnerships between cities, nonprofits, schools, and internet service providers have already proven successful in bridging the digital divide—especially during the pandemic. Since 2012, Cox Communications has partnered with Computers 2 Kids statewide to provide the four things families really need to get online:
- Internet-enabled devices such as desktops, laptops and tablets, since smartphones are not great for completing homework assignments or applying to college;
- Public awareness and assistance applying for low-cost internet service like Connect2Compete. (70% of qualified California households surveyed pre-pandemic weren’t aware of these affordable options for low-income households);
- Free digital literacy instruction for people of all ages, giving them the skills, they need to use a computer and the internet; and
- Free technical support and assistance for their new devices.
Additionally, Cox, Computers 2 Kids, Orange County Business Council and the Orange County Department of Education, teamed up in 2020 to rally businesses and the public for a two-week computer drive where they collected over 1,400 electronic devices to support K-12 students. The drive included a kickoff event at the Orange County Fair and Events Center and companies including Konan Medical, Sodexo Clinical Technology Management, and Applied Medical donated hundreds of devices. This fall Cox is also working with Computers 2 Kids in Orange County to provide 300 laptops to students in Capistrano Unified School District.
Before taking on the costly, complex and continuous investment required for a municipal broadband network, our city governments should consider partnering with local technology experts and nonprofits and leaning into the many resources we already have to get our citizens online.
Jodi Duva is vice president of Cox Business in Orange County, a community volunteer, and the mother of two school-age children. She lives in Rancho Santa Margarita.
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