How a Rural California Town Got Universal Broadband

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High-speed internet access is something many of us take for granted in the 21st century. But in Southern California and across the country, the lack of universal quality service is especially problematic during the Coronavirus pandemic. Employees trying to work from home and students completing coursework online need a reliable internet connection.

Some communities have cracked the code to provide universal broadband, and one of those cities might come as a surprise: Gonzales in California’s Salinas Valley.

Read Joe Mathews's Connecting California column about the town of Gonzales below:

How a Rural California Town Got Universal Broadband

If California is really the global tech capital, why is it so hard for our small towns to get the Internet service they need?

One answer to that question is in Gonzales, a Salinas Valley settlement of 9,000.

While  California’s biggest cities now struggle to provide Internet access for people to work and study from home, Gonzales solved that problem a few months ago. Before the pandemic hit, the town offered broadband service, free of charge, to all its residents. The story behind this rare achievement—Gonzales is the first Central Coast city to do this—offers lessons about power and how communities can beat the odds.

Gonzales’ leadership is not a surprise. The town, surrounded by fields, is a small wonder, with low crime,  innovative health services, extensive supports for children, and  a diverse industrial base employing local residents. 

But even for a nimble city, securing broadband has been difficult. Gonzales’ long path to universal broadband suggests how hard it will be to turn temporary Internet measures of the pandemic—like Google’s hotspot donations or short-term service discounts—into long-term bridges over our digital divides.

When Gonzales started its broadband quest, in 2005, Internet service was slow and unreliable, and municipal officials couldn’t get service providers’ attention. So city officials joined the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and started visiting the San Francisco headquarters of California’s Public Utilities Commission to press for rural broadband. 

At some PUC meetings, Gonzales was the only city represented. The small town didn’t have much leverage—until officials discovered how to advance their case for rural broadband by protesting  corporate mergers and acquisitions. 

In 2015, when Charter Communications sought to merge with Time Warner in a $78 billion deal, Gonzales moved to block California from approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems, by arguing the deal wouldn’t help small towns. Charter, forced to negotiate with Gonzales, agreed to upgrade the town’s Internet, bumping upload speeds from 1 Mbps to 60 Mbps.

A tech backbone was in place, but home Internet access remained a problem. On my visits to Gonzales, I saw kids sitting outside McDonald’s, Starbucks or even City Hall, using the free WIFI to do their homework. In 2017, such scenes inspired the city to approve a strategy for achieving “Universal Broadband for All.”

Gonzales asked for proposals from Internet providers, but rejected them all as insufficient. Instead, the city began individual negotiations with providers.

T-Mobile proved a good fit for Gonzales. The company has a program called EmpowerED to get students online. T-Mobile also has a dense network of cellular towers in the area—providing coverage to drivers on the 101.  

The T-Mobile/Gonzales partnership was approved by the city council last October. T-Mobile upgraded wireless Internet infrastructure, and donated 2,000 Wi-Fi hotspots—one for every city household. 

The city, not residents, pay monthly service charges, at a discounted rate of $12.50 monthly per household device. The total annual cost to Gonzales is $300,000—paid for with general fund revenues and a special sales tax.

Anyone presenting proof of residency in Gonzales received a hotspot; so did households outside the city who attend Gonzales schools. Since COVID forced shutdowns, the city has offered drive-by service for equipment pickups. Residents say the devices are already activated when you get them, so they are easy to use.   

 “I think this is doable across the state,” says longtime city manager René Mendez, who fields broadband-related inquiries from other California towns. “Why can’t you provide broadband for the whole community, just like you do with sewer and water and streets?”

Securing broadband should be easier than it was for Gonzales. But the city doesn’t dwell on past struggles—it’s moving forward. Gonzales’ deal with T-Mobile is for two years, but it’s renewable. City officials are already planning their broadband future. It starts with 5G. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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