State superintendent announces $1M prize for innovator to close digital divide

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The California state superintendent announced Tuesday that a $1 million prize is now up for grabs for whoever comes up with a way to eliminate the digital divide and expand high-speed internet access to the reported nearly one million students lacking internet connectivity.

"We ought to tap the best minds in research, technology, entrepreneurs who can come up with the next big idea to help us close the digital divide," said Tony Thurmond. "Who knows? That might be the next great inventor. They could be sitting on their couch for all we know. If they’ve got an idea that can close the digital divide, we should be listening to them."

Thurmond said that the California Department of Education has partnered with the biotech company, Genentech, automaker General Motors and Michelson Philanthropies to offer the prize.

"It’s a call to action. The real prize beyond the prestige that the inventors will garner is that the technology will serve tens of millions and make tens of billions," said Gary Michelson, founder of Michelson Philanthropies.

Thurmond unveiled the plan with members of the Digital Divide Task, which is made up of lawmakers who've proposed legislation to expand broadband access throughout California.

"Without a doubt at the center of all of this is our students and the learning capacity that we’ve seen take place during this pandemic," said Eduardo Garcia, a California State Assemblymember.

A study by the "Public Policy Institute of California found almost 16% of school-aged children (about 945,000) had no internet connection at home in 2017 and 27% (about 1.7 million) did not have broadband connections.

Senator Lena Gonzalez has already introduced legislation to spur the development of breadboard internet in underserved communities but admits there is another critical issue that needs to be addressed.

"That affordability piece and ensuring that low-income families can attain that adequate high speed and reliable internet that they deserve," said California State Senator Lena Gonzalez.

Those interested in submitting an idea for the challenge can do so by sending an email to innovationchallenge@cde.ca.gov.