California communities get $46.6 million Internet access boost

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday pumped $46.6 million into a plan to boost high-speed Internet access throughout the Central Valley.

The money will help extend fiber optic and wireless broadband service from Yuba City to Bakersfield and through the Sierra Nevada. It could especially help rural areas catch up to other communities already served by efficient onramps to the information superhighway.

"This program is a textbook example of government investment done right," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said, adding that the federal funding will "stimulate further private investment."

A consortium of independent telephone companies called the Central Valley Independent Network will use the funds for a 1,371-mile fiber optic network, roughly half of which is already built. This will provide high-speed service through 18 California counties, going as far north as Colusa County and as far south as Kern County.

The money will also help pay for 12 new wireless nodes to serve remote parts of Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties. Some 350 existing cell phone towers in the region will be boosted so they, too, can provide high-speed wireless access.

The Central Valley grant is part of an overall $205 million package of broadband grants provided to California on Wednesday.

Locke rolled out the San Joaquin Valley grant Wednesday with full political fanfare, in a telephone news conference accompanied by Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Cardoza and Costa both supported the $787 billion economic stimulus package in February 2009, from which the broadband grant program gets its money. All told, the Obama administration is distributing some $7.2 billion in broadband grants.

"We know how important this is to our region," Costa said. "Internet access translates to an opportunity to create new jobs and economic development."

Congressional Republicans, including all of the San Joaquin Valley's GOP House members, opposed the overall stimulus package as wasteful and unlikely to add lasting jobs.

Democrats, though, have been able to tout local stimulus grants on a regular basis for more than a year. The Agriculture Department and the Commerce Department began handing out the broadband grants in late 2009.

The San Joaquin Valley broadband grant is one of the biggest of its kind to date for California.

"This means every family, every child, every small business will have access to the Internet," Cardoza said. "It's important that we have this access."

Broadband definitions vary, but the term generally means a lot more information can be carried at once. While old-fashioned dial-up modems might convey 56,000 bits of data per second, broadband might convey 4 million bits or more of data per second.

Lawmakers specified that the grants target areas that are "unserved" or "underserved" by existing broadband Internet access. Communities can qualify for the grants in several ways; for instance, if fewer than 40 percent of households currently have broadband subscriptions, they are considered underserved.

Forty-nine percent of Central Valley households cannot access high-speed Internet service, according to a 2009 survey by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.

"Despite double-digit gains in Internet use and access to broadband since 2008, some groups still remain much more likely than others to report use of information technology," the California public policy group noted earlier this month.

The new federal grant funds will also help connect University of California and California State University campuses, as well as the region's community colleges. All told, the project is expected to take 30 months to complete.

Matching local contributions of $20 million will augment the federal grant.

Other California projects previously funded by the broadband grants have ranged from the installation of public computers in San Bernardino County to a "digital literacy training" program that included an $800,000 sub-grant for the Fresno-based Radio Bilingue.