If California is really the global tech capital, why is it so hard for our small towns to get the Internet service they need?
One answer to that question is in Gonzales, a Salinas Valley settlement of 9,000.
While California’s biggest cities now struggle to provide Internet access for people to work and study from home, Gonzales solved that problem a few months ago. Before the pandemic hit, the town offered broadband service, free of charge, to all its residents. The story behind this rare achievement—Gonzales is the first Central Coast city to do this—offers lessons about power and how communities can beat the odds.
Gonzales’ leadership is not a surprise. The town, surrounded by fields, is a small wonder, with low crime, innovative health services, extensive supports for children, and a diverse industrial base that employs local residents.
But even for a nimble city, securing broadband has been difficult. Gonzales’ long path to universal broadband suggests how hard it will be to turn temporary Internet measures of the pandemic—like Google’s hotspot donations or short-term service discounts—into long-term bridges over our digital divides.
When Gonzales started its broadband quest, in 2005, Internet service was slow and unreliable, and municipal officials couldn’t get service providers’ attention.
So city officials joined the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and started visiting the San Francisco headquarters of California’s Public Utilities Commission to press for rural broadband.
At many PUC meetings, Gonzales was the only city represented. The small town didn’t have much leverage—until officials discovered how to advance their case for rural broadband by protesting corporate mergers and acquisitions.
In 2015, when Charter Communications sought to merge with Time Warner in a $78 billion deal, Gonzales moved to block California from offering its approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems, on the ground that the deal wouldn’t help small towns. City officials fought so hard that PUC officials urged Charter to negotiate. Ultimately Gonzales dropped its opposition after Charter upgraded the system serving the town, bumping Gonzales’ upload speeds from 1 Mbps to 60 Mbps, and its download speeds from 5 Mbps to 100 Mbps.
A tech backbone was in place, but access to the Internet at home still remained a problem for many poor families. On my visits to Gonzales, I often saw kids sitting outside McDonald’s, Starbucks or even City Hall, using the free WIFI to do their homework. In 2017, such scenes inspired the city to add a Broadband Strategy to its general plan, with a commitment to “Universal Broadband for All.”
It requested proposals from Internet service providers to provide universal broadband. Four such proposals were filed, but Gonzales rejected them all, citing slow speeds or holes in the commitment to universal access, and began to negotiate individually with providers. The city found a willing partner in T-Mobile, which did not want a fight with the little city as it planned a merger with Sprint.
T-Mobile’s offerings were well-suited for Gonzales’ needs. The company has a program called EmpowerED to get students online. T-Mobile has an unusually dense network of cellular towers in the area—which provide cell coverage to people driving through on the 101. It also was willing to shift its model, which focuses on school districts, and work with the city government as well.
The T-Mobile/Gonzales partnership was approved by the city council last October. T-Mobile upgraded wireless Internet infrastructure, and provided 2,000 Wi-Fi hotspots—one for every city household. The hotspots offer speeds four times those required by the Federal Communications Commission, and can support up to 12 different devices at once.
The city, not residents, are paying monthly service charges, at a discounted rate of $12.50 monthly per household device. Partnership documents value T-Mobile’s donation at more than $504,000. The total annual cost to the Gonzales government is $300,000—paid for with general fund revenues and a special sales tax approved back in 2014.
Hotspot distribution started in schools and low-income housing complexes. Anyone presenting proof of residency in Gonzales received them; so did households outside the city who attend Gonzales schools. Since COVID forced shutdowns, the city has offered drive-by service for equipment pickups.
Residents tell me the devices are already activated when you get them, so they are easy to use. And with education and other services moving online in the pandemic, the hotspots have become indispensable for Gonzales’ many multi-generation families. Grandparents sing the hot spots’ praises, and local college students from Gonzales, now studying from home, say their city Internet connections are better than their campus ones.
“They work really, really well, even with all the people suddenly online—Google docs, Google Classroom, Zoom, are all working,” says Gonzales High senior Isabel Mendoza, 17, a commissioner with the Gonzales Youth Council, a youth government that has a role in city and school district decision-making. “Before, because we have 5 people in my house, and a number of electronics, the Internet was really slow.”
René Mendez, the longtime city manager, has been fielding calls and emails from towns around California asking for broadband advice, and nearby Greenfield is now moving forward with a similar program.
“I think this is doable across the state,” Mendez says, particularly if cities make it a priority to seek out Internet providers and make deals that mix new investment with cost-sharing. “Why can’t you provide broadband for the whole community, just like you do with sewer and water and streets?”
Of course, it should be much easier for poor towns and people to secure Internet in California, which invented our tech world, than it was for Gonzales. But the city doesn’t dwell on past struggles—it’s moving forward. Gonzales’ deal with T-Mobile is for two years, but it’s renewable. City officials are planning a trip to T-Mobile headquarters, and plotting the next chapter of universal broadband. It starts with 5G.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.