“If we had computers, we could see the world over the Internet—if we had Internet,” Firebaugh Migrant Housing, 2005. Photo by Stan Santos

Fresno’s Measure C: A Leap of Blind Faith

“If we had computers, we could see the world over the Internet—if we had Internet,” Firebaugh Migrant Housing, 2005. Photo by Stan Santos

Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9408 was present at Fresno City Hall on July 7 to support the overwhelming opposition to the November referendum on Measure C and $6.8 billion in public funds. Mayor Jerry Dyer’s consultants and management team and the Fresno County Transportation Board betrayed the wishes of the public and voted in favor of the “half-cent sales tax aimed at improving the overall quality of Fresno County’s transportation system.”

CWA Local 9408 represents more than a thousand employees of AT&T and Frontier Communications in Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kings counties. We would like to clear the freeway-centric landscape of our urban and rural communities and build a more intelligent, future-proof transportation system, none of which is included in the current iteration of Measure C. It is time to replace this narrow-sighted conceptual framework with a new vision, one of “information highways.”

The transportation system of the future is one in which our children visit distant lands, perhaps even other planets, via fiber-optic networks. We are not talking about Facebook or Twitter, although social media has its role. We envision streaming video connecting Fresno to the challenges facing children and communities on the other side of the world, where they endure hunger, climate change, forced migration and war. 

Through audio and visual communications platforms, we dialogue and share their hard-learned lessons and small victories as they struggle to preserve their homelands, restore natural habitats and exercise democracy and agency.

Connected classrooms of the future can take “field trips” to the depths of the ocean to listen to whales’ songs and learn of the capacity of their massive bodies for absorbing tons of carbon dioxide and reducing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. We can travel to the International Space Station and look down on the beauty of our home, La Madre Tierra, its awesome splendor, and fragile existence in a huge and daunting universe.

Advanced communications networks can provide the foundation for employment, social services, education and healthcare for underserved communities throughout Fresno County. “Smart farming,” or farm automation, require high-speed networks and various technologies to improve efficiency and reduce manual labor.

As automation and drones displace all but the most essential farm labor and food processing tasks, farmworker families will need connectivity to expand their geographic quest for education, employment and services, while maintaining their connection to their homes and rural life. 

A recent Community Alliance article noted that “according to the 2022 State of the Air Report, which is published by the American Lung Association every year, the Fresno-Madera area took the lead as the most polluted city in the country for fine particle pollution, also known as PM2.5” (June 2022).

During the height of the pandemic, bad air, “failing water systems” and the onslaught of Covid-19 combined to increase the suffering in Central Valley communities. A study provided by the Centers for Disease Control highlighted the lack of Internet connectivity as a contributing factor in increased mortality rates during that time. This adds to the urgency for using every available resource to address community needs in a holistic manner.

The Central Valley landscape also presents opportunities for investment in large sections of undeveloped and idle agricultural land that can be repurposed for solar and wind generation, light manufacturing, electronics assembly and housing. But all require increased investments in communications networks.

In recent years, California has been flooded by initiatives that promise “local hire” and “lifting disadvantaged communities.” Similarly, Measure C claims it will “provide good paying jobs” and “develop reasonable local hiring and contracting goals.”

This should benefit the large numbers of youth and workers who seek to transition from the on-and-off cycles of farm labor. However, most of the eligible projects, “Construction (rehabilitation, maintenance and/or reconstruction) of streets and roads, unpaved roads and alleys,” are the exclusive domain of operating engineers or similar craft trades.

Despite low achievement levels in language arts, math and college entry exams, many Valley youth dream of higher education and demonstrate the aptitude for careers in science and engineering. This is further evidenced by the increased numbers of high school students in rural communities such as Tranquillity who participate in dual enrollment programs.

In 2019, under the sponsorship of educator Espi Sandoval, 11 seniors graduated with associate of arts degrees from West Hills Community College before graduating from high school. The number increased to 40 in the following year and has expanded to include Kerman, Mendota, Firebaugh and Huron. But many complain of the huge challenges, working late into the night to complete online assignments and testing over unreliable Internet connections.

The San Joaquin Valley could be the next Silicon Valley, but this will not happen for our inner city and rural disconnected families. They continue to be victims of the business plans and appetites of Internet service providers and network operators such as AT&T, Comcast and Frontier.

It is only in recent years that growing numbers of the public and community leaders have become aware of the need to “bridge the digital divide.” And we must use every opportunity to do so, through legislation, regulatory oversight and funding pipelines such as Measure C.

Measure C could be a complementary source of funds for building advanced communications networks alongside major thoroughfares and arteries. These public funds could serve as matching grants in conjunction with state and federal infrastructure projects, which are increasingly focused on high-speed communications and information networks.

The State of California is currently disbursing more than $6 billion for broadband infrastructure, which will create approximately 10,000 miles of fiber network access and thousands of connections to homes and businesses to underserved communities such as those in Fresno County. And the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act promises billions more in federal funding for broadband in California. Why can’t our local leaders share that vision?

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) with the California Emerging Technology Fund contracted a study entitled “Transportation Broadband Strategies to Reduce VMT and GHG.” The study concluded that the participation of nonessential workers in telecommuting yielded a 15% reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and a 11.5% reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

It also reported that “communications network infrastructure—conduit, fiber and other physical assets—may be incorporated into many transportation projects at a small marginal cost.” The cost to drop conduit in an open trench is about 1/6th the cost of a stand-alone project. Including fiber would cut the cost of backbone or middle-mile infrastructure in half.

Telecommuting centers, including multiple employer collaboratives, have been in existence for more than a decade in countries outside the United States. These remote work centers are now found in at least 20 countries on five continents.

For Measure C to contribute to the “highways of the future” we must educate our elected leaders and the community of the need to abandon the archaic patterns of land use and the reliance on patching potholes and building physical transportation infrastructure. Maybe now is the time for reflection, dialogue, planning and the adoption of a new vision. We owe it to future generations.

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