WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Wednesday pumped $46.6 million into a plan to boost high-speed Internet access throughout the Central Valley.
The money will help extend fiber optic and wireless broadband service from Yuba City to Bakersfield and through the Sierra Nevada. It especially could help rural areas catch up to communities already served by efficient onramps to the information superhighway.
"This program is a textbook example of government investment done right," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said, adding that the federal funding will "stimulate further private investment."
A consortium of independent phone companies called the Central Valley Independent Network will use the funds for a 1,371-mile fiber optic network, roughly half of which is built. This will provide high-speed service through 18 California counties, going as far north as Colusa County and as far south as Kern County.
The money also will help pay for 12 wireless nodes to serve remote parts of Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties. Some 350 cell phone towers in the region will be boosted so they, too, can provide high-speed wireless access.
Closer to home, the Stanislaus County Library, Modesto Junior College, the Stanislaus County Office of Education and California State University, Stanislaus, stand to benefit.
Officials from the library and CSU, Stanislaus, were unfamiliar with the grant's details. SCOE officials had been tracking it, but they could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
"We're going to research it and find out what's available to us," said Susan Lilly, the library's public information officer.
David Douglas, president of the Central Valley Independent Network, said the next step is to evaluate environmental impacts that could come from installing the improved broadband network. Construction could begin within six months, but the network has not determined where it will start.
"It was a big surprise. We're all smiles today," he said. "Now there's work to do."
$205M for all of state
The Central Valley grant is part of an overall $205 million package of broadband grants provided to California on Wednesday.
Locke rolled out the valley grant Wednesday with political fanfare in a telephone news conference accompanied by Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.
Cardoza and Costa supported the $787 billion stimulus package in February 2009, from which the broadband grant program gets its money. All told, the Obama administration is distributing some $7.2 billion in broadband grants.
"We know how important this is to our region," Costa said. "Internet access translates to an opportunity to create new jobs and economic development."
Congressional Republicans, including all of the San Joaquin Valley's GOP House members, opposed the overall stimulus package as wasteful and unlikely to add lasting jobs.
Democrats, though, have been able to tout local stimulus grants on a regular basis for more than a year. The Agriculture Department and the Commerce Department began handing out the broadband grants in late 2009.
The valley broadband grant is one of the biggest of its kind to date for California.
"This means every family, every child, every small business will have access to the Internet," Cardoza said. "It's important that we have this access."
Broadband definitions vary, but the term generally means a lot more information can be carried at once. While old-fashioned dial-up modems might convey 56,000 bits of data per second, broadband might convey 4 million bits or more of data per second.
Lawmakers specified that the grants target areas that are "unserved" or "underserved" by broadband Internet access.
Many ways to qualify
Communities can qualify for the grants in several ways; for instance, if fewer than 40 percent of households have broadband subscriptions, they are considered underserved.
Forty-nine percent of Central Valley households cannot access high-speed Internet service, according to a 2009 survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Matching local contributions of $20 million will augment the federal grant.
Other California projects previously funded by the broadband grants have ranged from the installation of public computers in San Bernardino County to a "digital literacy training" program that included an $800,000 subgrant for Fresno-based Radio Bilingue.