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Passage of broadband bill step toward better internet in poor, rural areas

Legislation that will fund an expansion of the state’s broadband, with a goal of increasing internet access for families and businesses in poor and rural areas, passed both houses of the state Legislature on Thursday.

Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, the main proponent of “Internet For All” for the state, said large portions of her original bill, AB 14, were included in the governor’s Broadband Budget Bill, AB 156.

Gov. Newsom, in a news release, called the bill “historic” and said it will be “a legacy project that will benefit generations of rural and urban residents alike.”

The $6 billion legislation was approved unanimously, 78-0 in the Assembly and 39-0 in the Senate. Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, a co-sponsor, was “instrumental” in helping to get the bill passed, said Aguiar-Curry, who has six counties in her district, including parts of Sonoma County and all of Napa and Lake counties.

“I’m so excited; I’ve been working on this for 10 years,” she said. “With the passage of AB 156 today, California has committed to a generational investment in providing for all Californians the access they need to internet-based services like education and job training, telehealth and the digital economy.”

On the Senate side, Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, was one of the lead negotiators in working to reach an agreement between the Senate, Assembly and the governor’s office on the trailer bill, which makes the statutory changes needed to OK the budget immediately.

“High-speed broadband is no longer a luxury,” McGuire said, “it has to be a right. The pandemic shined a spotlight on the massive disparities that exist in California’s small towns and inner cities when it comes to the lack of internet. Millions, here at home on the North Coast and across the state, are on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Towns and schools in out-of-the way areas in Sonoma County like the Sonoma Coast and the Knights and Alexander valleys would benefit from the broadband expansion, an aide to McGuire said.

Aguiar-Curry partnered with Sen. Lena A. Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, on companion bills, her AB 14 and Gonzalez’s SB 4, which still need to be passed to ensure the building of broadband fiber lines is prioritized in both rural and urban neighborhoods that are without strong internet connectivity.

“The governor put together his broadband plan and took a lot of my bill, and put it into a trailer bill to get the funding moving along so we can get federal funding,” Aguiar-Curry explained.

Everything has to be completed within three to five years to continue the funding. The goal is to put the fiber infrastructure, what’s called “the middle mile” of connective infrastructure, along major thoroughfares using current public easements, and working with Caltrans.

“If we can do the middle mile up and down the state, we can then do what we call the last mile — connecting to libraries, community colleges, fire and police departments and hospitals,” Aguiar-Curry said. “We would make sure we get to unserved and underserved areas first.”

Her bill will include an extension of the cellphone surcharge fee that owners pay (23 cents per device per month) that would expire later this year for future funding.

Health is a top issue addressed by the expansion. With the pandemic, more people were using telehealth on their computers for medical appointments and often they would be cut off because of poor reception.

“We are on the right track, we have a lot of momentum and we want to get it done,” Aguiar-Curry said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

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