Close to Home: High-risk fire areas need broadband access
Already this year, more than twice as many acres have burned in California as at the same time in 2020. Wildfire preparedness is urgent in Sonoma, Marin, and Humboldt counties. While California is launching an ambitious statewide plan, we have yet to see a commitment to the pockets of northwest California that are most susceptible to wildfires. Too many communities in these high threat areas still lack broadband internet access, which is an essential resource for public safety warnings, weather reports and evacuation information from first responders.
The Humboldt County communities of Alderpoint, Myers Flat, Weott and Redcrest, for example, are designated high fire threat areas, and yet many households and businesses continue to lack access to adequate high-speed internet. Or take Inverness in Marin County, another high fire threat area, where 98% of households lack high-speed internet.
What makes these predominantly rural areas especially susceptible to wildfires — the forested and diverse terrain — has also historically kept high-speed internet service from reaching these small communities.
State policymakers recently put forward a $6 billion plan to fund expanded broadband. While this level of funding is significant, where and how the money is directed demands greater scrutiny on behalf of those in living in high-risk areas. State policymakers have the opportunity to ensure that the money is used in a way that delivers high-speed service to communities at risk of wildfires. This can be accomplished in two simple ways.
First, we must prioritize broadband projects that reach households without internet access in fire threat areas. The bulk of the funding is set aside for what is called “middle-mile” infrastructure. These are like the internet “highways” that run up and down the state. Policymakers should require that we prioritize “middle-mile” projects to help connect communities that are lacking any broadband, areas deemed “unserved.” We can’t see any justification for failing to put communities that have no access first in line.
Second, broadband funds must be disbursed quickly. Federal funds included in the California plan need to be allocated by the end of 2024. That is why we think that any middle-mile funding that isn’t allocated by 2023 should be shifted to the California Advanced Service Fund for construction of broadband projects that actually connect to homes and businesses, which are like internet “surface streets” known as “last-mile” infrastructure. Disbursing funds quickly is crucial as families in rural, at-risk communities can’t wait five or more years for access. They need it now to support their preparedness.
The infrastructure deployment costs for remote communities can be as much as 10 times the cost of connecting average households. That’s why these communities need the most help. As a matter of public safety and basic equity, these communities must be made a priority. A decision not to put unserved communities first is a decision to leave them behind, which is not something we should accept.
Scott Miller is president of the Western Fire Chiefs Association.
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