By Liam Curley
The East Bay Broadband Consortium (EBBC) met last week at its second “Get Fast” Summit to look for new ways of improving broadband–high speed internet–infrastructure in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties. With local know-how and help from Oakland’s tech boom, the group plans to close gaps in coverage from the street up.
The argument for better bandwidth has been stalled for some years. A few different systems have already laid the groundwork for city-wide wi-fi, notably a wireless mesh network on the city’s rooftops and city-owned, fiber optic cables running underground, but these projects have largely met political gridlock. The current internet infrastructure also has limitations (some fiber optic cables were installed back in the 1970s) and it hasn’t been able to keep pace with Oakland’s bandwidth demand. So why will “Get Fast” succeed now?
“Every community is becoming competitive,” Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said, and the East Bay brings a lot to the table: a motivated workforce, stellar universities and laboratories, and a thriving social scene. What it needs now, he said, is to connect these institutions and give them the tools to do more.
Carson, who spearheads the EBBC and chairs the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, believes Oakland can’t afford to lose momentum. What will make the difference, he says, is Oakland’s ”attitude of accessibility” that pools resources and drives communities together. “It’s not just ‘I got mine,’” said Carson.
EBBC is up against a significant challenge. Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission graded and mapped broadband coverage all across the state. Oakland scored a C average, with one-third of East and West Oakland underserved or unconnected. A focus of the “Get Fast” summit was figuring out how to work more closely with schools, churches, and community centers to educate the public about these missing networks.
Gaps in infrastructure and access, Carson says, drain economic competitiveness, public health and safety, and information services delivered through various applications and technologies. The help is there, just not available to those who need it most. The EBBC plans to reach out to not only students, but seniors and the home-bound, to help them get them the basic digital literacy skills needed to succeed.
Carson said the EBBC is almost willing to go door-to-door with its message and hopes to hold forums and consultations to get the word out around Oakland neighborhoods. One obstacle that is slowing EBBC down is showing how high-speed internet can be affordable. Carson compares it access healthcare. There will always be “Cadillac” plans out there, he said, and you might only be able to afford basic care. “But it’s care,” Carson said. Connectivity goes a long way.
The EBBC has put together an Action Plan that will begin a conversation with local government and businesses so they can see infrastructure as an opportunity to invest in the community. (The EBBC committee itself brings together representatives from EMANIO, Transwestern, OSIsoft, and AT&T.) Carson says he wants to reinforce the idea that better bandwidth will bring business here. “By helping [small business owners] take full advantage of technology, we can create jobs and make an impact on communities affected by generations of poverty,” Carson recently wrote in an op-ed for the Oakland Tribune.
For EBBC, it’s about time Oakland take its place as a front-runner in information technology and connectivity. “There’s receptivity, a new energy here, bringing us to new levels,” Carson said. “It’s time to build a broadband infrastructure Oakland can be proud of 20 years down the line.”