“The fourth utility”: Paso Robles and Atascadero want to expand broadband access in North SLO County
The expansion of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has made reliable internet more important than ever, leading some to call it a fourth utility.
Now, Paso Robles and Atascadero have joined forces to expand broadband access in North SLO County.
The two cities partnered earlier this year to carry out this goal, and recently secured a $200,000 grant from the California Public Utilities Commission. The money is meant to help develop the North County Broadband Strategic Plan, which is underway right now.
Both cities want to position themselves as destinations for what they call the “remote economy,” but Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno said it’s also about expanding internet access for underserved residents with little internet access.
“There are a lot of areas in town that have a great connection, [and] have service no problem. And there's others where it's really hard to get to get any service," Moreno said.
Moreno said the pandemic revealed how much variation there is in internet speed and reliability across North County. Some managed better than others when it came to working from home, running businesses remotely or learning virtually.
Part of the strategic plan is an ongoing survey to try to figure out which people in the area are struggling to access broadband services.
“We saw that there were a lot of gaps, but exactly where those are, that is what we want to zero in on," Moreno said.
The survey asks questions about internet access, reliability, cost and more. There's also an option to fill it out confidentially.
Loreli Capel is Atascadero’s Deputy Director of Economic and Community Development. She said the self-reported information will be critical in expanding access for broadband internet in North County.
She said about 200 people each in Atascadero and Paso Robles have completed it so far.
“We're looking to get at least 500 to 1,000 [responses], probably by Christmas if not sooner. So the more participation the better," she said.
Capel said the two cities partnered on this not only because broadband is a shared need in both areas, but also because it makes them more competitive in applying for more grant funding.
She says a similar broadband plan could expand to the county level someday, but for now, Atascadero’s efforts to expand internet access is more effective with Paso Robles as a partner.
"We don't know what the future holds, and how much will be working together or more independently as cities, but this sets us up for the maximum possibility," Capel said.
Mayor Moreno said internet access shouldn’t be looked at as a luxury — it’s now a necessity.
You're seeing that broadband is being looked at as a fourth utility, and so it's no longer about streaming for Netflix and video games. It really is about a quality of life — being able to work, being able to go to school, being able to live in a way that allows you to do all of the things that you need to do," she said.
The survey is ongoing, and you can find it online by going to pcbroadband.org/needsassessment, and clicking on the SLO County tab.
The North County Strategic Plan is expected to be finished in March 2023.