Young Leaders Collaborate to Envision Broadband for All in California

1024 576 Sauntharya Manikandan and Maxwell Johnson

Sonora, California in Tuolumne County (Photo: Wayne Hsieh/Flickr)

“Alright can everyone hear me? No? I’m cutting in and out? Hello?” Been here before? Who hasn’t? In a world where the internet runs our day to day lives, we are bound to run into some technical difficulties. However, for some Californians, a lack of access to strong broadband internet can mean a daily struggle to communicate, learn, and operate.

The California Forward Young Leaders Advisory Council has prioritized digital equity as one of the Council’s priority action areas since the 2020 California Economic Summit. The Council’s recommendations are outlined in their 2020 Call to Action. This year the Council is taking it a step further, serving as contractors on the Central Sierra Broadband Roadmap project. The Council was selected by Tuolumne County to develop outreach strategies to target and survey students, ages 13-18,  and senior adults ages 65 and above. There is an emphasis placed on these specific demographics because of the unique challenges and vulnerabilities they face in response to internet connectivity.

The Council is working in partnership with lead contractor NEO Connect to provide necessary data and recommendations to inform the County’s Broadband Roadmap strategy.

The Central Sierra Region of California, which encompasses Tuolumne, Alpine, El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras Counties, is an exceptionally vulnerable rural region to the issue of broadband internet. The California Dream Index indicator on broadband access shows that 17% of the population in the Sierra Nevada lack broadband internet, which is higher than the state’s average of 13%.

Michael Wiafe, Council project leader shared, “It has been an incredible journey wrestling with what this means for our future and to work with Tuolumne County and NEO Connect doing on-the-ground intergenerational policy collaboration and research. This work is only the beginning.”

CA FWD has been a strong proponent for increased access and affordability of broadband across California – from supporting and advocating for the passage of SB 156’s $6 billion investment in broadband infrastructure to continuing the discussion through a designated work group at the recent 2021 California Economic Summit in Monterey.

Helping to close the digital divide has also been a priority of the Council, and the opportunity to collaborate with NEO Connect on this project allows young leaders to offer their unique perspectives and lived experiences to help inform community outreach strategies.

When asked why people should care about broadband access for all, Krystal Mae Raynes Council project consultant insisted, “If people care about the holistic well-being of a 21st-century citizen, reliable internet must be included as part of basic needs. I hope the project can shed light onto the state of broadband infrastructure, especially in overlooked rural and Indigenous communities.”

The team plans to take a unique community-centered approach, through focus groups and presentations, to inform the degree to which the target areas have been impacted by limited broadband access. 

It is critical that we are engaging voices in this work who have not been engaged before as we think about the equitable future of internet connectivity,” said Wiafe. “Young people realize how important this resource is to the full economic participation of communities as society increasingly relies on broadband to operate basic functions like school and tele-health.”

The digital divide has only become increasingly more apparent during the pandemic. It is clear to see that broadband can and has altered lives – especially those who lack access to appropriate bandwidth and services. The Council’s contributions to the Central Sierra Broadband project is an opportunity to help close the digital divide and invest in a more equitable future for California.

Residents of the Central Sierra five-county service area are invited to participate in the Broadband Survey. Visit for more information on the project and to take the Central Sierra Broadband survey.

Sauntharya Manikandan (bio) is a member of the CA FWD Young Leaders Advisory Council

Maxwell Johnson (bio) is a member of the CA FWD Young Leaders Advisory Council


Sauntharya Manikandan and Maxwell Johnson

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