Jay King, the President and the CEO of California Black Chamber of Commerce, says the non-profit is helping small businesses participate in the state’s effort to close the digital divide and provide online access to underserved communities. (Antonio Ray Harvey/CBM)

The California Black Chamber of Commerce (CBCC) is joining hands with state government to help narrow the Golden State’s Digital Divide for nearly two million houses without access to broadband.

In partnership with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the California Department of Technology (CDT), the CBCC will help push the state’s MiddleMile Broadband Initiative – a $3.25 billion effort to enhance internet connectivity –under the “Broadband Technology Small Business Initiative.”  The initiative was created to provide a durable, open-access network that would bring high-speed broadband service to unserved and underserved communities, regardless of technology used, on equal economic and service terms.

“We are the lead agency working with Caltrans,” said Jay King, the President and CEO of CBCC. “We’re front of the line making sure small businesses are included, matchmaking is taking place, and that we meet the goal and the deadline of making sure that every Californian has access to digital connections.”

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The initiative connects CBCC’s statewide membership of 5, 500-plus small African American business firms and non-Black entities to the benefits of broadband technology, according to King.

The state also allows small businesses to bid as contractors for projects related to strengthening broadband connections to improve access to education, health services and employment opportunities throughout the state.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), in 2020, 10% of California residents reported not having a desktop, laptop, or other computing device at home.

In addition to a lack of functional units for computation, access was especially limited among low-income (23%), less-educated (16%), Black (15%), and Latino (15%) households, PPIC presented in its June 2022 fact sheet.

So far, California has invested $6 billion through the legislation that created the Middle Mile Broadband Initiative, Senate Bill (SB) 156. The legislation, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in 2021, expands broadband infrastructure, addresses affordability, and promotes digital literacy.  California will receive approximately $100 million more to enhance its broadband infrastructure through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Middle-mile refers to the fiber optic infrastructure that makes internet connections possible by transmitting large amounts of data over long distances at high speeds through high-capacity cables. The complete design features a proposed system of 10,000 miles of infrastructure, covering the entire state.

Although federal dollars are involved in the project, King stated that state projects are “race neutral” to stay in compliance with California’s Prop 209 law that prohibits “preferential treatment” based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.

“We know the importance (of closing the gap) not just in the Black community but in all marginalized communities,” King said. “The digital divide will only continue to hurt our country and state if we don’t ensure that everybody has full access to the digital world.”

CBCC’s Director of Small Business Willard “Will” McClure said that the design and construction of the middle-mile network is monitored by the Middle-Mile Advisory Committee (MMAC). The MMAC monitors the development and construction.

According to McClure, the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), an organization providing leadership in expanding broadband access statewide, offers “five strategies” to close the digital divide. These include Civic Leader Engagement, Venture Philanthropy Grantmaking, Public Policy Initiatives, Public Awareness and Education, and Strategic Partnerships.

CETF’s network of more than 100 grantees have delivered digital literacy training to more than 800,000 residents and has assisted in providing internet connections to more than 250,000 low-income households in rural and remote areas, urban disadvantaged neighborhoods, and people with disabilities.

McClure said that the Middle-Mile project will be completely implemented by December 2026 but the work to close the gap really starts after the last fiber optic is installed. All participants must be “logged on with confidence,” he said.

“Once the access is available the problem is not over,” McClure said. “There’s confidence that comes with getting people to understand how to use it. Grandma doesn’t know how to download ZOOM.”

Last month, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel joined Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass to announce the campaign to increase enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program in Los Angeles at the Pio Pico-Koreatown Branch Library.

Qualifying households are eligible for a discount of up to $30 a month for internet service and discounts on devices through the Affordable Connectivity Program. The households can also get a one-time discount of up to $100 to buy a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from qualifying providers.

“For many households, the cost of groceries, gas and rent can eat up the monthly budget, putting internet access out of reach,” Rosenworcel said. “We want to do more to get out the word about this powerful program and reach families that may not know about this benefit.”