Rural communities in Fresno County are seeing an increase in state, federal and private dollars to bridge the “digital divide” as families say they have been left behind during the pandemic.
The region’s digital divide — or the divide between those with internet access, digital devices and digital literacy skills and those without — was at least partially addressed earlier this week when the rural community of West Fresno in Biola celebrated free access. Coming to the Internet thanks to a $1 million investment in Comcast’s “Digital Equity.”
Just 20 minutes from central Fresno, Biola is a rural community of more than 1,427 people, the majority of whom are Hispanic and more than 69% of whom are non-citizens, according to US Census data. Many work in local agriculture, construction and manufacturing, and 38.5% of the population suffers from poverty.
When the pandemic forced students to connect remotely from home, local school officials worked to ensure Beulah’s students could continue their studies.
The Central Unified School District, which includes the Biola community, used CARES Act funding to install a wireless antenna tower at Biola-Pershing Elementary School to provide free, permanent Internet access within the home. In 2020 the Board of Trustees approved the purchase of free AT&T hotspot hardware for students at Beulah Pershing Elementary School, Gilbert Magallon, the district’s media officer, said.
However, families said their children have struggled with being online during the pandemic.
“The truth is it was horrible because the internet was down all the time,” said Giirmina Platon, speaking in Spanish. Platon is a 40-year-old farm worker and mother of three Beulah Pershing Elementary School students.
Other times, the computers at school did not start, Platon said, and the family had to go to school to change equipment.
Platon said her children were late for school. “It was really hard.”
Still, the family was able to breathe a sigh of relief on Tuesday as the three Platon kids — Emilio, a sixth-grade student, Guadalupe, a fourth-grader and Etzel kindergarten — were among 250 students in Beulah who got free laptops thanks to a donation from Comcast.
The $1 million investment, announced Tuesday in the community services district in Beulah, will be used to open three “lift zones” in the Central Valley, including Beulah, as part of a plan to build 1,000 free internet zones in secure locations on nationwide for low-income communities.
Eligible families and individuals who sign up for Comcast’s Internet Essentials Program and Federal ACP will be able to get free broadband access.
The company is also donating more than $100,000 to local community organizations, including Fresno Parent State University and Reading & Beyond, to provide digital literacy training for Beulah students, families, seniors, and community members.
Local representatives celebrated the donation. “This will help us take a giant step forward,” said Assembly member Dr. Joaquin Arambola, a Democrat from Fresno, who spoke during Tuesday’s announcement.
This initiative comes at a time when California education leaders are trying to bridge the region’s digital divide and recover from the educational impact of the pandemic.
School leaders have acknowledged the difficulties students and families have faced with distance learning for two years.
“The Central Valley has been one of the hardest hit areas during the pandemic,” said Beulah Pershing Elementary School Principal Shaylan Shepherd. “It will take years, if not decades, for our society to recover from the economic, social and emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
West Fresno sees $6 billion in state funding for digital stocks
While a 2019 estimate indicated that 25% of Fresno County homes had no internet, county officials believe the percentage of those without internet may actually be higher.
An October 2021 report by the California Institute of Public Policy said that 41% of low-income households in California still do not have full digital access to the Internet and a device for educational purposes. The problem is significant among communities of color: 37% of Latino households and 29% of black households lack full digital access as well as devices for educational purposes.
Official data does not reflect the entire digital divide, said Eduardo Gonzalez, program director of the San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium, another initiative working to bridge the digital divide. “It’s hard to know (the full gap) unless you map the community by community,” he said.
The consortium helped work with Comcast to secure the investment for Biola and was also recently consulted by the state about another broadband investment in western Fresno.
In November, West Fresno was announced as one of 18 projects to receive seed funding for “middle mile” broadband initiatives from the state as part of the state’s $6 billion investment to expand broadband Internet access in underserved communities in the state, Gavin. Newsom announced last July.
Of the multi-year investments, $3.25 billion will be used to build, operate and maintain a state-owned open access network “Mile Medium Network,” a high-capacity network that can transmit large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks. networks, according to a press release.
When the project is completed in approximately two years, the network will serve the communities of South dos Palos, Kerman, Mendota, Fairbao, Tranquility and San Joaquin.
The state is also allocating $2 billion to “last mile” projects that connect families and businesses to local networks, and $750 million of the investment will go to the Loan Loss Reserve Fund so that local governments and nonprofits can access secure financing for broadband infrastructure.
Gonzalez, of the Broadband Consortium, said Internet access is opening up a world of services, such as education, job opportunities and telehealth, to help lift families out of poverty. But broadband infrastructure and internet access are not enough.
He said digital literacy skills should be part of the work to bridge the digital divide. What’s the point of owning a Ferrari if you don’t know how to drive it?
Fresno County leaders say broadband is not a luxury
Fresno County leaders say they are vying for this type of government grant funding to expand access to broadband in rural parts of the county, and are building collaborations to address the digital divide.
The county is part of the Fresno Alliance for Digital Inclusion as well as the Fresno County Fair Broadband Commission, two initiatives that seek to bridge the digital divide. Both groups include the Superintendent of Schools in Fresno County, Local School Districts, California State University in Fresno, State Center Community College District, Cradle to Career, Fresno Housing Authority, Valley Children’s Hospital, and others.
According to Sonya Dusty, Fresno County Public Information Officer, these coalitions work together, share information, and jointly apply for grants to support “digital inclusion” throughout Fresno County, while also advocating on behalf of county residents to state and federal agencies.
Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a member of Report for America Corps. This article is part of California divisiona collaboration of newsrooms that researches income inequality and economic survival in California.
This story was originally published March 17, 2022 5:00 p.m.