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Rep. Mike Thompson highlights federal investment into broadband infrastructure

Rep. Mike Thompson held a press conference with state and local leaders at Napa’s Camille Creek Community School on Jan. 5 to highlight what the broadband portion of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law November last year, will bring to California.

Thompson and several other speakers specifically highlighted how the investment into broadband will help with education, telemedicine services and small businesses.

“There’s a total of $65 billion in broadband funding in the bill. It’s the largest funding the federal government has ever provided for broadband expansion,” Thompson said.

Thompson was joined by California Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and Napa County Office of Education Superintendent Barbara Nemko, Vintage High School principal Sarah O’Connor and Vintage senior Carolina Padilla Ayala.

Thompson said the investment will help equalize internet access in education, improving learning conditions for many students. He also said it will also improve people’s ability to access telemedicine — which has expanded considerably during the pandemic — and improve internet conditions for small businesses, leading to more jobs and increased economic activity.

Aguiar-Curry said all the speakers had been fighting for broadband investment before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear how important internet access can be. Aguiar-Curry highlighted recent state bills to bring up to $150 million per year into broadband grant funding for under-connected areas. The bills, Assembly Bill 14 and Senator Senate Bill 4 — authored by Aguiar-Curry and Sen. Lena Gonzalez  — passed into law last year.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires the past several years have made it glaringly clear how critical connectivity is in the times of emergencies, including the massive destruction of our area,” said Aguiar-Curry. “We need to make sure we have a transition of students learning from home and what we can do during wildfire evacuation. The accelerated need for broadband cannot be ignored.”

Nemko, who’s been highly involved in implementing digital learning in early education, said it can’t be overstated how much the internet and connectivity has changed education. She gave the example of a young child getting a wholly different interactive educational experience from a digital book that reads itself to the child and allows the child to, for example, click on a cow that would then moo.

Nemko said Napa is a rural county with many places that have poor connectivity. Under distance learning, she said, students who were actually able to consistently connect to the internet had a much better experience than those who couldn’t.

“When we are on distance learning, and we hope we don’t ever have to do that again, but when we were on it, it was huge for students who were able to connect and do their work,” Nemko said. “For the students who had to get a paper packet, it was definitely not the same. And so we were thrilled that even in our preschool, our children all had iPads and were able to work at home because they knew how to use an iPad.”

O’Connor, the principal of Vintage High School, said nothing will ever replace the in-person, human connection of teaching and learning, but the circumstances of the last few years show the importance of being to move to distance learning “at the snap of a finger.”

What’s most important about the bill, she said, is creating a greater consistency for internet access, and thus improving equity in the educational environment.

Padilla Ayala, a Vintage High School senior, said she’s had difficulty with internet connectivity throughout the pandemic. Even without distance learning, she said, so much of school is dependent on the internet — to check grades, turn in assignments and see announcements, for example.

In distance learning, she said, “My internet probably never worked. I would have to turn off my camera in order for my sound to work or have to turn off my sound in order for my camera to work.” And she still has to attend various meetings carried out on Zoom.

California is set to receive $44.6 billion from the infrastructure act overall, which is more than any other state but among the lowest adjusted for population, landing at around $1,100 per California resident, according to reporting from CNBC.

But, Thompson said, California is still set to benefit tremendously from the federal funds, which includes about $25 billion for highways, $4 billion for bridges, $10 billion in transit funding and $385 million to build electric charging stations throughout the state.

Napa County's Top 10 Stories of 2021

Now through the end of the year, the Napa Valley Register will be counting down the top news stories of 2021. Check back each day to see what made the list.

You can reach Edward Booth at (707) 256-2213.

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