Quick Take:

MBEP is launching Equal Access Monterey Bay, a community-based initiative to bring high-speed broadband to families and implement long-term solutions to the region’s broadband challenges of affordability, access, infrastructure, and equity.

Many of us take it for granted when we sign on to a web conference, stream a movie or search for a 24-hour plumber, our internet connection will do just what it’s meant to do: connect us, seamlessly and almost instantaneously, at the tap of a finger.

If the past year has proven anything, it’s that reliable, efficient internet service is absolutely essential to our daily lives.

But the pandemic has also laid bare the systemic gaps hidden in our own communities, such as elderly residents unable to sign up online for vaccinations or use telehealth resources, employees struggling to work from home because of poor bandwidth, and students falling behind or being left out of digital learning entirely.

students reading
Credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

We can no longer ignore the digital divide.

Since 2018, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) has been working closely with its members, partners and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC) on a Broadband Initiative to explore how we can facilitate high-speed broadband coverage throughout the region. As a nonprofit organization focused on regional well-being, MBEP is uniquely positioned to bring city and county governments, county offices of education and ISPs together to take action and improve broadband coverage for all areas including underserved communities.

MBEP has also worked with the CCBC and other key partners to establish a regional broadband standard of 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload that meets users’ current needs in the region. Read more by downloading the white paper.

“MBEP is taking action to launch a community-based initiative to implement long-term solutions to the region’s broadband challenges of affordability, access, infrastructure and equity,” says Freny Cooper, MBEP Chief Operating Officer and program manager for its Broadband Initiative. “Equal Access Monterey Bay aims to close the gaps so that all residents of the Monterey Bay region have broadband access.”

Equal Access Monterey Bay is modeled after Equal Access Santa Cruz County, which launched in September 2020. That initiative’s goal is to bridge the digital divide and bring true high-speed broadband to every family in the Santa Cruz community, regardless of income level (click the video by the Community Foundation to learn more).

YouTube video

MBEP is leading the effort to bring similar solutions to Monterey County, where many rural residents lack adequate coverage, and large geographical swaths are deemed unprofitable by large carriers, a practice often referred to as digital redlining. For some households, broadband service is unreliable or simply unaffordable, while others lack access to devices such as Chromebooks. Low-cost plans offered by large carriers aren’t enough. Many of those plans, at $35 or $45, are still overpriced for low-income families, offer inadequate bandwidth for most households, and increase their rates once an introductory period expires.

Another factor to consider is broadband adoption, as opposed to access. Even when high-speed internet service is available at the regional standard (100 Mbps down/20 up wireline service), 76 percent or fewer residents actually have the required bandwidth. In San Benito County, that figure stands at 75 percent, according to self-reported Census data as of September 2020. But for Monterey County, it’s just 63 percent.

Ninety-nine percent of our region has access to internet service, yet only 76 percent have actually adopted broadband. That delta — between 99 percent access and 76 percent adoption — is either inadequate, unreliable or unaffordable service. — Freny Cooper, MBEP Chief Operating Officer and program manager for its Broadband Initiative

Closing those gaps will take a community effort, and MBEP is leading that charge.

“We’re not just talking about high-speed internet,” says Cooper. “We’re talking about what you need to get things done in today’s world.”

Meeting that minimum standard is essential for basic tasks, and that broadband service must be affordable to everyone. Far too many people are being left behind.

And while hotspots and school-issued Chromebooks have their place, they are somewhat of a Band-aid approach. “It’s like a big puzzle of multiple technologies that have to fit together,” says Cooper. “One size does not fit all. ”Ultimately, longer-range solutions, both wireless and wireline, are necessary, but it would be prohibitively expensive for ISPs to build out in some rural areas as they would spend far more than they’d ever recoup.

“Infrastructure is really expensive,” says Cooper. “If you’re building fiber, depending on who’s doing it, it’s anywhere between $250,000 to $500,000 per mile.”

Working with the Monterey County Office of Education, local governments and ISPs, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership is already working to identify some of those gap locations in Monterey County. The Equal Access concept is to supplement buildout and service costs with philanthropic contributions, to bring to fruition infrastructure projects that ISPs would otherwise deem unprofitable and infeasible.

students reading

Equal Access Santa Cruz County was able to unite a wide range of community partners — Cruzio, Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, the Rotary Club of Watsonville and Pajaro Valley Unified School District — to bring broadband infrastructure to its first project, the Buena Vista Migrant Camp. That targeted approach, which included community fundraising, corporate donations and voluntary contributions on Cruzio customers’ monthly bill, raised enough money to build broadband infrastructure to reach those 143 units and cover service for those households at no charge to them for the next two years.

Without those efforts, those 143 homes, situated in a particularly rural agricultural region of Watsonville, would likely never have had access to broadband.

Expanding coverage: support the Equal Access Monterey Bay campaign

As one of the partners in that effort, MBEP is now looking for seed funding to launch an Equal Access Monterey Bay campaign in Monterey County, to be funded through a combination of private and corporate donors, and state and federal grants.

MBEP is also laying groundwork in San Benito County, working closely with one of its member organizations, South Valley Internet, to launch an Equal Access campaign there.

Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...