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Mendo’s Broadband Conundrum

by Carole Brodsky, March 21, 2012

The first portion of this two-part series investigates how Mendocino County and rural America are impacted by the lack of universal broadband service.

It was a busy afternoon at the Mendocino Coast Hospital. Mendocino County Broadband Alliance steering committee chair Jim Moorehead heard about Dr. Don’s bad day from Mendocino Coast Hospital administrator Ray Hino.

“The robot crashed.”

The robot Hino was referring to is named “Dr. Don,” in honor of coast physicians Don Hahn and Don Thomas.

Dr. Don is a remote-controlled, almost life-sized robot on wheels, whose head resembles a computer monitor. Earlier, Dr. Don was working fine, assisting Albert, a patient who was recovering from a hip replacement. Al is waiting for a teleconference with his urologist. The hip replacement went fine, but Albert has been having some difficulty urinating. A scan revealed a shadow near his prostate that requires follow-up.

Meanwhile, Albert’s urologist, who is working in Vallejo, logs on to Dr. Don’s network, and using a joystick, he slowly navigates the robot through the Mendocino Coast hospital corridors, to Al’s room.

“Good Morning, Albert.” The urologist calls out his patient’s name as he rounds the corner into his room. Albert is at once surprised and amused when he sees his doctor’s face on the video screen. His all-human, part-robot urologist settles down for the consultation.

Telemedicine provides the ability for real-time, face-to-face consultations between a patient and a physician working at another office or hospital. It enables physicians to more accurately confer. It can eliminate a long and potentially uncomfortable patient transport from one hospital to another. Telemedicine’s applications offer tremendous possibilities for resource-strapped rural medical facilities.

The technology necessary for Albert’s urologist to remotely control the Dr. Don robot is completely dependent on a steady, vigorous Internet connection. Hino explains to Moorehead that during the busiest daytime hours, peak usage of the area’s bandwidth can render Dr. Don inoperable — no pun intended.

For thousands of residents and countless tourists and visitors, access to the Internet in Mendocino County is spotty, slow or completely non-existent. The region’s Internet access is provided by a disconnected patchwork of dial-up, cable and satellite providers. If you’re one of the lucky ones who lives or works in an area served by broadband, fast download speeds offer users the benefits broadband affords — enrichment through online courses, management of a home-based business, telecommuting, real-time videoconferencing, home banking and shopping, enjoying the latest movies from the comforts of home, or sharing photos and Skype conversations with loved ones overseas. But for a large percentage of Mendocino County residents, interminably slow download speeds, geographical dead zones and high monthly service fees make access to the Internet cumbersome, frustrating or impossible, which is impacting everything from tourism to public safety.

Donna Pierson-Pugh, principal of Anderson Valley Elementary School and administrator of the Anderson Valley Family Resource Center does her best to provide Internet access to students and the community. A connectivity survey was conducted several years ago for parents whose children attended the school. “Less than one-third of families had computers, and even a lower percentage had Internet connectivity,” she notes. Over the years, the advent of smart phones has somewhat leveled the playing field. “Our guestimate is that 75 to 80 percent of families can access the Internet with smart phones, but cell phone reception is very spotty throughout the Valley,” she explains. “The potential for access with smart phones, is better, but it may mean driving down the road to get reception,” she continues.

Currently, Hispanic and African-Americans account for 44 percent of those adopting smart phone usage. What are the consequences for lower-income Americans who rely upon a phone for accessing the Internet? A recent article in the New York Times states a typical Verizon or ATT 4G smart phone subscriber exceeds their monthly data caps after downloading only one two-hour movie on iTunes. The customer’s overage charges? Ten dollars per gigabyte of usage.

Economic constraints appear to lurk around any corner of cyberspace. According to a 2011 report by the Department of Commerce, one in three, or almost 100 million Americans lack high-speed Internet service.

Access to the so-called information superhighway is in part a “pay to play” issue, with poorer Americans unable to pony up the significant monthly charges for high-speed access, left to traverse the Internet on the digital equivalent of a rutted, unmaintained buggy path. Despite these statements last May by the Department of Commerce, Mendocino County and hundreds of communities nationwide are seriously impacted by the lack of broadband:

“High-speed Internet access and online skills are not only necessary for seeking, applying for, and getting today’s jobs, but also to take advantage of the growing educational, civic, and health care advances spurred by broadband. For example, an increasing amount of activities — such as taking college classes, monitoring chronic medical conditions, renewing your driver’s license, tracking your child’s school assignments — are now commonly conducted online.”

Some local schools have fared fairly well when it comes to acquiring up-to-date equipment and technology. The Anderson Valley School District acquired Apple products several years ago. “Every class has access to the computer labs two and a half times a week,” says Pierson-Pugh. Ten parents recently attended a training to learn how to access their children’s grades via the Internet, and school staff is creating a web page. “It’s very apparent who will benefit from this. It’s going to be a limited audience, even if you include those with smart phones,” she notes.

Anderson Valley High School has Internet availability and tries to accommodate students’ needs, according to Pierson-Pugh. “But if you don’t get your homework completed, once you go home, you probably won’t have access,” she explains. “High school aged-students are impacted academically by not having access to broadband,” she says.

“Two of my neighbors had to get satellite connections because they had to drive their kids four miles into town every night so their kids could do their homework, and wait in town for the kids to finish. These families had the financial resources to pay $70 per month for the satellite services, but I don’t think $70 is a number that a large percentage of the population can afford,” says Moorehead.

Through the efforts of county libraries, senior centers and other agencies, a smattering of public Internet access is available throughout the county. The Anderson Valley Family Resource Center offers three computers utilizing an upgraded T-1 line, available to the public approximately 25 hours per week, free of charge. Firewalls limit where students and the public can surf, but all basic functions such as accessing government and employment sites are available.

Generally, in rural areas of the United States, the rarified world of broadband continues to be considered an unnecessary luxury by many people, as well as too costly, according to surveys conducted by the Department of Commerce. Users appear to be stratified by race and income. The Department’s February 2011 report states those with college degrees adopt broadband at almost triple the rate of those with some high school education (84% versus 30%). The rates for White (68%) and Asian non-Hispanics (69%) exceed those for Black non-Hispanics (50%) and Hispanics (45%) by 18 percentage points or more. Rural Americans’ broadband access lags behind urban areas by ten percentage points (60% versus 70%). Americans with disabilities are far less likely to use broadband, with only 37.5 percent of disabled individuals adopting broadband use at home.

The rate of development of a nationwide broadband network has been astronomical, outstripping VCRs, cell phones, cable, color televisions, personal computers, radios, electricity, and telephones. Broadband achieved 50% penetration rates in just eight years. Personal computers took 19 years to achieve the same societal diffusion.

Rural communities across the country are facing many of the same problems as Mendocino County, which can be summed up by the lack of what is termed a “robust” broadband network in their region. The Congressional Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that:

“Consumers in all regions of the Nation… should have access to telecommunications and information services… that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas and that are available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged in similar services in urban areas.”

But what consumer advocates are witnessing is what is being called “the great disconnect” which separates affordable access to broadband services for urban users and their rural counterparts.

The National Broadband Plan, or NBP’s current goals are to increase broadband speed to 100 million homes to 100 Mbps (megabits per second). That sounds good — and is, if you live in a city. The plan’s goal for rural areas is increasing speed to a mere 4 Mbps — 25 times slower than blazing city speeds.

Pierson-Pugh’s home computer history is typical for rural Mendocino County residents. “We live three miles up Mountain View Road and currently have DSL. We had dial-up. Then we tried the Air Card with our cell phone. Then we got satellite, but it was very erratic. DSL has been a big improvement, but we’re at the end of the line, and service isn’t consistent. It’s not broadband. For those of us who are lucky, DSL is the only option and the best we have for now,” she explains.

Margaret Bond is a semi-retired anthropology professor and board member of the Rancho Navarro Homeowners Association. She acts as a liaison between the subdivision and the Mendocino County Broadband Alliance.

The Rancho Navarro subdivision was developed in the late 50s. There are 137 lots in the subdivision with about 100 developed, inhabited by a combination of full and part-time residents. The subdivision is located in a hilly, forested area between the old Masonite Road and Flynn Creek Road. “We have land line telephones and electricity, but we are full-rural,” Bond explains.

Bond does not believe cell phone service is available to anyone in the subdivision, save those residing on the hilltops. “Most people have land lines or no phone service at all. Some use dial-up for their Internet service, which is awful,” she explains. Bond uses satellite, which is costly and in her words, horrible. “When it is cloudy, reception is near impossible. “It kills you — sometimes it’s just gone. In the wintertime, we have more trouble. Even with satellite, connectivity is very intermittent. If you try to view a video, it buffers, over and over again. Downloading Meet the Press takes almost two hours,” says Bond.

Bond is thankful satellite allows her to check email, but insists the county needs more. “All of our neighbors, anyone you talk with, agrees broadband is the only solution for our rural location. Taking a college class online is nearly impossible. We have a son in Nepal doing research. The Internet the only way we can communicate. My other son, who is a sociologist, can’t spend time up here because of the lack of access,” she continues.

“I’m an advocate for elders getting into the computer — keeping in touch with family, learning how to email. You can’t do that with smart phones,” says Bond.

“If we didn’t have our limited satellite reception, I don’t know what we would do. But it’s not what you would call broadband,” Bond explains.

The broadband network, like much in technology, depends upon redundancy to ensure seamless service delivery. When Esplanade, a small, privately owned south-coast Internet service provider closed its doors in 2011, around 400 customers were left in digital darkness, according to Greg Jirak, strategic planning chair for the Mendocino County Broadband Alliance. The resultant issues cascaded and greatly affected the lives of individuals, organizations and businesses.

“When Esplanade folded, the Coast Community Library was no longer able to provide public Internet access,” Jirak explains.

Seniors were severely impacted because of Esplanade’s shutdown. “The South Coast Senior Center staff helped seniors use their Internet connection to deal with Social Security, Medicaid, insurance issues and medical appointments. Now all staff shares a single, slow dial-up line and Internet classes were cancelled. The Center came within hours of losing a $20,000 grant because of its lost Internet access,” says Jirak.

The Point Arena Pharmacy is required to submit government or insurance claims for prescription approval, as well as placing orders for controlled medications. “This requires high-speed Internet,” Jirak again emphasizes. “When Esplanade failed, the pharmacy had to immediately obtain a two-year commitment to satellite service — at an up-front cost in excess of $1,000,” he continues.

Bedrock — the area’s major supplier of concrete, rock and gravel, repairs and builds roads and prepares construction sites. “Their extensive operations entail a great deal of regulatory interaction — government filings, coordination with planners, dealing with water quality and fish and game issues,” says Jirak. They too were forced into a several-thousand dollar satellite contract — for a service plan that may not meet their long-term needs.

‘House in the Country’ is a custom art print business in Point Arena that generates approximately $1 million in revenue through sales to decorators, designers, catalogs and retailers. “The Esplanade failure forced the business to immediately lease their own T1 line, costing about $15,000 for a three-year contract,” says Jirak.

“Esplanade’s demise is a wakeup call for Mendocino County. Universal access to dependable, high-speed Internet is required to maintain Mendocino’s economic viability,” Jirak concludes.

Other businesspeople concur. Burt Cohen is the owner of Boont Berry Farms — an organic-based grocery and food production business in downtown Boonville. He is also the president of the local Chamber of Commerce. “The lack of broadband affects everyone who has a business. Everyone needs access to banking, purchasing, filling out government forms,” he notes. ATT is the provider for downtown Boonville, continuing westward to Anderson Valley High School. According to Cohen, the system works fairly well. “It’s still relatively slow compared to a San Francisco connection, but compared to dial-up, it’s 100 times faster. Nothing works with dial-up here,” says Cohen.

“Ninety-nine percent of people who live here want broadband,” says Cohen, who believes the lack of broadband seriously impedes county business development. “Unobtrusive, environmentally friendly businesses can’t operate here very easily. Having broadband would support us economically, and encourages good businesses and creative people who want to move to the county — the kind of business we desire here,” he notes, adding he has observed on more than one occasion the shock and anger of a tourist unable to transact business or complete other electronic tasks because of the lack of broadband.

Cohen is putting the finishing touches on a Boont Berry project enabling small farmers to cooperatively market value-added products online. He is depending on his ATT service to reliably, consistently connect his new venture with potential customers. “We’ll see how it works,” says Cohen.

The lack of broadband has left its mark on the tourism and hospitality industry.

“Broadband is more than Internet,” explains Brian Churm, technology chair for the Mendocino Broadband Alliance. “Some innkeepers think they have broadband access if they throw up DSL and have 25 rooms sharing one line. People who need to access the Internet don’t want to be tied to their hotel room,” Churm explains.

“There are places on the Highway 101 Corridor where I can’t get GPS, reservations or camping spots. My map dies as we get out of GPS range. When I get to a town, the first thing I do is go to Yelp and see where to eat. If I don’t get a signal, I keep driving,” he notes.

Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino County, Inc. sees challenges for both visitors and those who serve them. “It is a disadvantage to businesses that don’t have access to broadband,” Schneider notes, adding this seems to be a recent development. “A few years ago, a majority of people were ok with not having access. Some people even appreciate not being connected. But more and more people depend on broadband,” noting the frustration for visitors and those who can’t offer it to their customers or guests.

Schneider stresses the importance of access to social media as a method to keep the county in the public eye. “We’re a leisure market,” he notes. “Lots of broadband talk is about business productivity. We don’t have so many people coming here to attend conferences while working for a week on their laptop, but people do want to share their experiences with others. From a marketing perspective, the best way to market is to post a photo or a video — by text, Facebook or other media, but they can’t. By the time they get to a place they have a connection, the photo doesn’t get posted,” Schneider notes.

“I don’t know if the lack of broadband hurts. I know that it only helps. People who have wi-fi definitely benefit from visitors,” he notes.

For Schneider, there is only one thing worse than no broadband: having a poor connection. “It’s worse than having no connection at all. One of benefits of broadband is that it provides a good connection. No one wants to waste half of your vacation researching something, waiting and waiting,” Schneider explains.

Meanwhile, the International Telecommunication Union Secretary General Hamadoun Touré states his agency’s Broadband Commission is declaring broadband communications a basic universal human right — on par with the right to food, health, and housing. “The right to communicate is a basic human right, and I believe that putting that on every national agenda is very important,” Touré said.

Bond couldn’t agree more. “Let’s say you’re a high school kid. What if all you have is a dial-up system? What if you live in a rural area and are trying to apply to college? If you’re stuck with dial-up, you’ll not be able to move forward,” Bond notes.

“Along Flynn Creek Road toward Comptche, there’s a big fiber-optic cable that runs through our land, but we don’t get the benefit of it. Why does it run past us and not give us access to the communications processes? We need to have the same ability to communicate as everybody else in the country. We shouldn’t be left out, just because we live in the redwoods. Let’s face it: broadband is the communication system we’re using now. People who don’t have it don’t have access to the information they need. In the United States, why leave the rural areas out of the future?” Bond concludes.

Next Week: The Mendocino County Broadband Alliance skillfully wends their way through a labyrinth of regulation, deregulation and bottom lines in their mission to bring broadband to the county. For more information on the Mendocino County Broadband Alliance visit www.mendocinobroadband.org.

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