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San Joaquin Valley ACCESS:
Bridging the Rural Divide on a Regional Scale

Seth Fearey, Connected Communities

A version of this paper was published by the Benton Foundation’s
Digital Divide Network on July 1, 2002.

California’s San Joaquin Valley is tackling the rural digital divide on a breathtaking scale. About 1,000 people in nine counties participated in one way or another. Over 400 people shared their ideas at series of workshops and developed 59 projects to help the Valley’s large and diverse population get better connections and put the network to more productive use. Because of the strong emphasis on developing local leadership and projects that meet local needs, we believe the program will sustain itself for several years.

The San Joaquin Valley, America’s Fruit and Vegetable Basket

The Valley’s 12,000 square miles comprise the most productive agricultural region in the world in dollar terms. Over 350 crops are grown here, including tomatoes, grapes, almonds, cotton, and lemons, plus poultry and dairy products. Food processors add value to local crops and sell worldwide. One million of the Valley’s 3.4 million residents live outside of the 62 incorporated cities. The median incorporated city has a population of about 13,000.

Like many rural communities, the region’s economy has been weak for many years. Unemployment hovered around 14% during the peak of the 1990’s boom. In 1997, the median household income ranged from $24,000 to $31,000 per year vs. the average in California of $36,000. Sixty-six percent of residents under age 25 have a high school diploma vs. 76% for the entire state.

The Valley’s population is young and growing rapidly. Over the next 40 years the Valley is projected to add 10 million people, most of them born locally. The low cost of housing attracts workers from Silicon Valley, Sacramento, and Los Angeles County who put up with remarkably long commutes.

The Valley’s Digital Divide

In April 2002, as part of an annual survey of the Central Valley, the Public Policy Institute of California asked questions on computer and Internet use. It found a substantial gap between the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento region:


SJ Valley


Use a computer at home, work or school



Have gone on-line to use the Web or e-mail



The Institute also found a 17-point gap in Internet use between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites living in the Valley, but this appears to be income related. Usage levels for computers and the Internet are the same for both groups when they earn over $40,000 per year.

In many rural areas the quality of telephone lines is poor. Top speeds for data lines are often less than 28.8 kbps, and rain can shut down data service entirely.

Providing Regional Leadership

The Great Valley Center is a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization committed to building support for California's Great Central Valley as a distinct region. Carol Whiteside, the Center’s president, believes the Valley’s economy has to diversify if it is going to reduce unemployment, accommodate population growth and compete in the new, global economy. Most Valley residents want to preserve the region’s agricultural industry and heritage, but they know they also have to attract and develop more manufacturing and professional service jobs to employ all the new residents.

In Connecting to Compete in the New Economy, a report released in August 2000, the Center announced that the San Joaquin Valley needs a reliable, affordable, and ubiquitous, high-speed information infrastructure to attract and support high-wage employers. To improve connectivity, the Center created ACCESS, Advanced Communications Connectivity for E-Commerce Strategic Success. ACCESS is a partnership program of the Great Valley Center and the California Technology, Trade & Commerce Agency, Division of Science, Technology & Innovation. Participating counties match the Agency’s funding with in-kind support.

Developing a Plan and Leadership Structure

The Great Valley Center worked with Connected Communities to create a process for improving connectivity that combines community leadership with market forces. Based on experience with several other communities, the process has three phases:

    1. Conduct community assessments
    2. Develop ideas for action initiatives
    3. Implement the best ideas

To start the program we had to win the support of the county Chief Information Officers (CIO’s). They quickly grasped the technical vision but worried that they did not know enough about economic development. To address this need, each county created a 10-15 member steering committee with economic development professionals, county supervisors, and leaders from each economic sector.

The ACCESS program reports to a regional leadership organization, the San Joaquin Valley Broadband Task Force (BBTF). The BBTF currently has 30 members including all nine county CIOs, economic development professionals, several county supervisors, communications companies, K-12 education leaders, and representatives of the University of California and California State University. At quarterly meetings, Task Force members review the direction and progress of the program, share experiences, and learn about new technologies and projects in other parts of the country.

Phase I – Conduct community self-assessments

The next step was to conduct readiness assessments in each county. We chose the Computer Systems Policy Project Readiness Guide for Living in the Networked World as our framework. The Guide looks at 23 indicators in the following five categories:

bulletThe Network
bulletNetworked Places
bulletNetworked Applications & Services
bulletNetworked Economy
bulletNetworked World Enablers

Each county’s steering committee invited 50 to 120 leaders from the key economic sectors – education, business, agriculture, telecommunications, government, healthcare, and community based organizations – to participate in half-day self-assessment workshops. Workshop participants rated their sectors according to four stages:

Stage 1 – dial up connectivity, some use of e-mail and the web

Stage 2 – some use of broadband and e-commerce technologies

Stage 3 – wide-spread use of broadband and e-commerce technologies

Stage 4 – full integration of the network into everyday work and life


The results in each county were unique, but two findings applied across the Valley:

bulletConnectivity was good in the larger cities, but only a few businesses, government agencies, or non-profits in those cities were putting the network to productive use. For many organizations, the benefits of high-speed services did not appear to be worth the cost.
bulletOutside of the larger cities, access to affordable, high-speed services was generally non-existent. High-speed services like T1 and T3 could be purchased, but rates were high, and customers often had to pay the full cost of construction. This was a major problem for growers, small businesses, and people trying to telecommute.

Phase II – Develop ideas for action initiatives

In each county, the steering committee identified four sector teams to brainstorm ideas for how the sector could advance to the next stage of readiness. Connected Communities facilitated the meetings, drawing out ideas for how to improve the communications infrastructure and create compelling applications with local value.

As of June 2002, eight of the nine counties have completed the process, yielding 59 documented project ideas. The following are a few examples:

bulletProvide e-commerce classes for growers, taught by growers with the help of the local community colleges.
bulletPut pesticide and burn permit applications on the agriculture commission website.
bulletIdentify all towers over 100 feet tall and develop policies to encourage tower sharing for wireless data services.
bulletGet refurbished computers into the homes of low-income families to help parents communicate with their children’s teachers and schools.
bulletNetwork social services agencies’ databases – government and non-profit – to reduce the duplication of files and improve client service.
bulletCreate internship programs to help students get real-world experience developing e-commerce websites for local small businesses.

Most of the telephone companies, including Ponderosa Telephone, Sierra Tel and SBC Pacific Bell, were valuable contributors to the program. We had less success attracting the participation of AT&T and the other cable companies.

Phase III – Implement the best ideas

The state provided funding for Phase I and II of the rural e-commerce program. Now

community leadership has to take over. Each of the projects has to find its own funding, but many projects do not need money or just require a change in priorities for existing budgets.

The county level steering committees will continue to meet to monitor progress and identify new opportunities. We are asking the local economic development organizations play a stronger role in providing on-going leadership. If we have done our job well, the teams that developed the action initiatives will follow through with implementation.

To support the continuation of the program, the Great Valley Center is incubating the San Joaquin Valley Communications Leadership and Information Center (CLIC), a new organization that will act as a central storehouse of telecommunications expertise. Initial funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Community Technology Foundation, and the Governor’s 2001-2002 Workforce Investment Act 15% discretionary fund.

Results to Date, Next Steps

Working on a scale as large as the San Joaquin Valley may seem like folly, but there is tremendous power in teamwork and competitive spirit. It is remarkable that so many highly qualified people contributed their time and expertise at so many meetings. The 59 ideas are all of high quality. Some may fail, but many will succeed and pave the way for new projects. The key to success is using local leadership to identify and address local needs. The Internet makes it much easier to connect to the world, but for the great majority of people it is still the local community that matters most.

Since we started the program, access to affordable high-speed services has improved. Sierra Tel and MercedNet, for example, launched high-speed wireless services that use the new Multi-channel Multi-point Distribution Services (MMDS) and Local Multi-point Distribution Services (LMDS) technologies. SBC Pacific Bell extended its DSL coverage to include more neighborhoods, and cable modem service availability has grown. But we still have a long way to go.

We are now starting work on ACCESS II – identifying opportunities for initiatives that span all nine counties. We are looking into projects such as regional Geographic Information Systems (GIS), public policy models, information literacy programs, an e-commerce seminar series, and on-line tools for economic development and business licensing.

For more information on the ACCESS program, partners, and tools, visit the following links.


The Great Valley Center –

San Joaquin Valley ACCESS project –

California Technology, Trade, and Commerce –

Copyright © 2005 Connected Communitiessm
Last modified: December 31, 2004