Gonzales Attains ‘Internet for All’
Having a Plan Has Made All the Difference to the Success of City’s Broadband Initiative
Before COVID-19, MBEP member City of Gonzales was already on track to distribute high-speed internet hotspots to its residents.
So while the city’s original plan was to distribute the devices at a Community Summit to launch its “Internet for All” initiative, city officials rapidly regrouped, organizing a series of drive-through events where residents were able to quickly and safely pick up their hotspot devices. The 4G LTE WiFi hotspots provide unlimited, high-speed internet access and can support up to 12 connections at once.
The distribution of approximately 2,000 hotspots, and the groundwork laid in previous years, have made Gonzales the first city on the Central Coast to provide free, city-funded broadband service to every household that needs or wants broadband connectivity.
“With school closing and many residents in the community not having internet access at home, we knew it was important to find a way to deliver the hotspots to residents, while still following the coronavirus health and safety guidelines. We had to get creative,” said City Manager René Mendez.
The “Internet for All” initiative is a result of a partnership between the City of Gonzales and T-Mobile, which is investing $504,000 from its Digital equity EmpowerED 2.0 Award Program to address the Digital Divide. Steve Blum, a consultant whose company, Tellus Venture Associates, helps communities develop broadband policies, programs and networks, worked with the city on its broadband initiative and in the negotiations with T-Mobile, described the city’s two-year deal with T-Mobile as unique.
To meet the city’s goal of providing baseline, city-funded Internet service to every home that wants it, the City Council approved an agreement with T-Mobile in 2019 to buy up to 2,000 hotspots with unlimited Internet access, at the rate of $12.50 per month for each activated hotspot. The Gonzales Unified School District was included in the deal so that district students whose families live outside of city limits could also qualify for hotspots.
In 2017, the City of Gonzales adopted a Broadband Infrastructure Strategy with the core goal of providing basic, reliable internet service to every household. The City Council approved the partnership with T-Mobile and the “Internet for All” initiative in October 2019. In addition to hotspots, the partnership between the City of Gonzales and T-Mobile included a significant investment of funds in the city’s overall wireless infrastructure to allow for users to achieve download and upload speeds well above the FCC’s standards.
“This initiative is one of the cornerstones of the city’s strategy to continue to improve and serve our residents and is essential for our community to thrive and be competitive in the 21st century,” said Mendez.
Gonzales took a comprehensive approach that embraced long-range solutions, said Blum, and that is now serving as a template for other cities to follow. The timing of the hotspot distribution was incredibly lucky in keeping Gonzales residents and students connected as COVID-19 shut down schools and businesses. However, the city had invested years of effort to get to this point. “It’s because they moved fast,” said Blum, “they saw a need, and they saw a way of fixing this need.”
That goes beyond handing out hotspots. When the California Public Utilities Commission approved the 91-mile Sunesys project in 2014, the City of Gonzales had long been one of the most vocal advocates for the open-access, fiber-optic network that now provides the backbone on which the Salinas Valley’s broadband service is based.
The city also joined the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, started pressing the CPUC for rural broadband in 2005, and 10 years later fought against Charter Communication’s acquisition of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems on the grounds that it left rural cities like Gonzales out in the cold. That challenge led Charter to upgrade the city’s internet speeds.
Blum predicts that the pandemic — and the digital gaps it has exposed— will change how cities approach the issue of broadband. Rather than something to be solved mostly by internet service providers, Blum predicts broadband will increasingly be treated as an essential municipal service. “COVID-19 has galvanized a lot of people and has cast the problem in a different light,” said Blum. “That thinking is changing now, and there’s more movement in general that broadband is something that is appropriate for government agencies to be providing.” “It took that (Taco Bell) picture to make people understand what the problem was,” said Blum, who has been working with cities and counties on broadband issues for 15 years. “It has suddenly become real to everyone.”
Photo courtesy of the City of Gonzales.