The story of broadband technology in Central Valley communities follows historic patterns of privilege and neglect, extreme poverty in a region of extreme wealth. Hundreds of towns, such as Firebaugh, Mendota, San Joaquin, Tranquillity, Five Points, Raisin City, Cantua, El Porvenir and Huron, suffer from the state’s worst air and water quality. Children experience the lowest achievement levels in English language arts, math and college entrance exams—foundational indicators of a child’s future quality of life.
In west Fresno County, grassroots organizing has not claimed major victories since the United Farm Workers (UFW) strikes or the struggle for land and basic services waged by farmworker families of Three Rocks in 1980.
Life for farmworker communities ebbs and flows like a river. They work the fields, observe the changing seasons and raise their children between cycles of man-made and natural crises such as droughts, housing and the economy. Another crisis arrived in 2020, with the gradual, increasingly deadly onslaught of Covid-19.
In December 2020, more than 800,000 farmworkers worked the fields and orchards of California, most of them in the Central Valley, and more than 300,000 were undocumented. With the onset of the pandemic, they were all suddenly classified as “essential workers.”
In 2021, a UC San Francisco research report stated that agricultural workers were almost twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as other working adults in California. They had the highest rate of deaths of any occupational group.
In April 2020, President Trump declared meat and poultry processors as essential industries. In the ensuing months, Foster Farms in Livingston had 400 infections and nine deaths. Seven workers died at Foster Farms plants in Fresno and another 10 in Merced, Tulare and Stanislaus counties. The San Joaquin Valley had arrived at the intersection of greed, economic interests and the lives of poor and working families.
Meanwhile, thousands of children, many of them the sons and daughters of those essential workers, were forced to do online learning.
But the Internet that higher-income neighborhoods take for granted was not there for them. Principal/Superintendent Baldomero Hernandez of West Side Elementary in Five Points sent surveys to parents and found that only 10% had Internet in their homes. Most pointed to their cell phones as their only access.
Speed tests performed on dozens of Wi-Fi hot-spot devices provided by county schools found that many performed marginally, relying on the weak cell tower signal of low-quality antennas. They were unable to provide a symmetrical data stream for the balanced two-way video that is essential for learning.
Teachers became frustrated and children disengaged. That exposed a glaring injustice: The Valley landscape is in fact a “digital desert.”
How do species survive in the natural world? Nature marshals its forces through communications networks. Living creatures, from microorganisms to trees and the four-legged, communicate through sound, mycelium and electromagnetic frequencies.
Whale songs carry high-amplitude sound across thousands of miles of ocean to communicate with their pod, locate mates and avoid danger. Ants coordinate to cross rushing streams by piling on each other and building a submerged bridge with their bodies. Bees use dance movement and odor to communicate.
For natural societies, survival of their species is an instinctive function. They process information, communicate and act as one, for the benefit of all.
You would think human beings as higher organisms would do the same, and consider all fellow beings, particularly children, as essential, like the living cells of that organism, which is society.
During the pandemic, higher-income communities, predominantly urban and White, accessed learning over high-speed fiber-optic networks, while thousands of “children of a lesser god” were left offline. This tragic failure unfolded in homes throughout California.
Network Architecture in Humans
The beautiful architecture of the human body relies on neurons in the brain and heart, which send high-speed signals via neural networks and synapses to every dependent system and extremity. When children lack stimulation, socialization and learning, the connectivity in their developing brains can decline, neural pathways lose plasticity and their lights go dim. They might never reach their full human potential.
Lack of lifelong learning, stimulation and social activity in adults contributes to comorbidities, which are the underlying causes of higher death rates related to Covid-19 in communities that lack effective communications networks and auxiliary services.
Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9408 represents more than a thousand employees of AT&T and Frontier Communications in Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kings counties. They are technicians and back-office staff in engineering departments, as well as mobility cellular stores.
Many see the social and economic disparities in surrounding communities first-hand, where rural and inner-city neighborhoods are victims of digital redlining by telecommunications and Internet service providers.
AT&T and Frontier keep outside workforce headcount at a minimum to benefit their business plans, shareholders and CEOs. Technicians must maintain networks with 20-year-old technology that does not fulfill customers’ increasing data needs.
In 2021, the State of California announced plans to dedicate $6 billion in federal coronavirus and state surplus funds to bridge the digital divide: $3.25 billion would go to the Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative (MMBI) to build up to 9,000 miles of fiber-optic network infrastructure throughout the state; $2 billion would be for “last mile” fiber connections to homes and businesses in unserved and underserved communities; and $750 million would be available in credit support.
Democratic state and federal administrations are responding to the pandemic with a huge investment in broadband infrastructure. This is the largest broadband infrastructure project in U.S. history, which would not have happened without the coincidence of critical conditions and forward-thinking political leadership.
In 2021, CWA analyzed the proposed California Middle-Mile Broadband map and observed areas of Fresno County that would remain unserved. A strategic plan emerged to approach the city councils of Firebaugh, Mendota, San Joaquin and Huron for adoption of a Resolution of Support for Broadband Infrastructure and the West Fresno County Fiber Optic Network. Each city council voted unanimously for the initiative.
CWA presented the resolutions to the California Public Utilities Commission along with letters of support from Central Valley Leadership Roundtable President Eliseo Gamiño and 4Venir.org of Merced County. Peter Ansel, policy advisor for State Senator Anna Caballero (D–Merced), provided key advice, and Senator Caballero submitted a strong letter of support.
In November 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative Initial Projects and Project 10: “West Fresno: Fresno County, including South Dos Palos, Kerman, Mendota, Firebaugh, Tranquillity and San Joaquin.” This represents an investment of more than $2 million in westside communities that would have otherwise remained unserved by the Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative.
But the job is not done; expansion of Internet access must keep pace with the expansion of data consumption and there are more opportunities. The Biden administration has committed an additional $65 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for broadband projects across the United States.
The west Fresno County model of collaboration can expand to other areas, including communities east of Highway 99 and other parts of the Central Valley. This will facilitate proposals to the California Advanced Services Fund for last mile fiber connectivity to homes and businesses throughout the Valley.
This could ignite an era of investment in advanced communications technology and network infrastructure that will strengthen economic life and prosperity for the entire Central Valley. Only then will the children of the San Joaquin Valley realize true inclusion in society and the fulfillment of their human potential.