The Alarming State Of Rural Internet
by Carole Brodsky, July 3, 2013
On Friday, members of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County and Access Sonoma Broadband presented a chilling report on the future of broadband in Northern California.
The event, titled, “The State of Broadband in Northern California” was a call to action for residents of the upper third of the state. According to Jim Moorehead, chairman of the Alliance, rural Californians face serious challenges, because their need for Internet service is largely ignored by major carriers focusing on high-density population centers.
Jim Mayfield, board president of the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, lauded the work of the volunteer-based Broadband Alliance. “The Foundation recognized that broadband is an infrastructure requirement necessary to create economic opportunities in Mendocino County. The Alliance has tremendous, dedicated, talented volunteers that have extended their reach beyond the borders of Mendocino.” A $40,000 Community Foundation grant was recently matched, providing the Alliance with research and project development funds. “This is a great example of philanthropy being tied to economic development,” Mayfield concluded.
The Alliance developed out of a group of Mendocino coast residents desiring faster, reliable Internet access. The group expanded their reach and now partners with Access Sonoma County, a similar organization attempting to bring broadband to under-and-unserved residents of Sonoma County. The Alliance has received unqualified support from Congressmen Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, California Sen. Noreen Evans, Assembly members Wes Chesbro and Mark Levine and the Mendocino and Sonoma County Boards of Supervisors.
“Over a decade ago, the Board of Supervisors entered into a contract with Williams Communication to lay fiber on county roads. It was a momentous decision, on the negative side. We have no access to that fiber,” noted Supervisor Dan Hamburg. “We live in a broadband world. Here in Mendocino, we lag far behind. I'm proud the board is supporting the Alliance's effort to create a 21st century infrastructure,” he noted.
“Economic development is critical to our survival. Revenues have been flat-lining for the past six years and county government is in retreat. I can think of nothing better to correct some of these trends than getting broadband access to our citizens. In all my years of government, I have never seen a volunteer group with as much energy and determination as the Alliance. It is a pleasure and honor to work with them,” Hamburg concluded.
Steve Turner, director of Mendocino County Office of Education's maintenance and operations, spoke on behalf of superintendent Paul Tichinin, the county's 13,000 students and the 1,000 MCOE staff who serve them.
MCOE recently partnered with the Alliance, submitting a grant application to Caltrans to help identify the county's digital divide. If funded, the grant would survey students, staff and organize forums to compile a statistically relevant sample identifying who does and does not have Internet access.
“Broadband service often doesn't extend beyond the campus. The future of education is broadband-based. Students need broadband for research and to be competitive. They need devices and affordable, high-speed access,” Turner concludes.
“Our libraries do not have adequate internet access,” says Mendocino County librarian Mindy Kittay. “The library provides lifetime learning for everyone — the only free place where anyone can go to learn. It doesn't matter what equipment we have if we don't have reliable, high-speed broadband,” she notes.
Greg Jirak, business and strategic planning chairman for the Alliance presented the document titled “The State of Broadband in Northern California.”
“Jeff Tyrell, district staffer for State Senator Noreen Evans suggested the Alliance develop this formal presentation. The rollout of this document is the reason for today's event,” notes Jirak, stating the document was emailed to supervisors in every Northern California county north of San Francisco.
Jirak described the digital divide by recounting the experience of Fort Bragg mayor Dave Turner, owner of Flo-Beds. “Dave needed a gigabit connection for his business. He contacted the provider and was quoted a price of $15,000. That same connection is available in San Francisco for about $1,000. How can Mendocino County be competitive if incumbents are charging us 15 times what it costs in the big city?” Jirak asks.
“Having full-service broadband is a basic right, like other utilities, but getting it will take unified action by Northern Californians. This problem exists in all rural areas with relatively low population density and particularly in areas with disadvantaged populations. The solution requires a high-level, organized approach. That is why we're reaching out and creating the Broadband Coalition of Northern California Counties- a grass-roots initiative which will bring attention to this issue,” Jirak continues.
The Coalition will provide mutual aid on broadband matters and advocate for continued grant funding- essential for building and improving rural broadband service.
“We have tremendous local support. Now we need support from all of Northern California- residents and elected officials. Only then will our rural voices be heard by decision makers in Sacramento,” he concludes.
“The entire Sonoma and Mendocino County Boards of Supervisors are fully on board. I believe we'll find all Northern California counties with us. It's hard to imagine any local leaders that wouldn't be supportive. The Alliance and our allies are really coming of age with this movement,” notes Supervisor John McCowen.
“Broadband Hero” Community Awards were presented to four residential areas- the Comptche and Rancho Navarro communities in Mendocino County and the Joy Road Neighborhood Association and the Sea Ranch Association in Sonoma County, for taking initiative to improve broadband service in their communities.
There is urgency in the Alliance's request for community and governmental involvement, notes Jirak. If signed by Governor Brown, Senate Bill 740 (Padilla), currently in the Assembly will provide continued California Advance Services Funds for Internet deployment projects. One project, the $119 million Northern California Regional Middle-Mile Infrastructure project, is currently under review by CASF staff. If funded, the project would provide 16 rural northern California counties with a “middle-mile” broadband backbone- the foundation for delivering broadband to most of Northern California.
But CASF grants, says Moorehead, are evaluated using wrong data at the wrong scale. “If you only looked at state and national broadband maps, life would look good in our county. Data maps indicate we have great broadband. This is a figment of the ATT and Comcast advertising departments. Actual, real service is not reported on these maps,” says Jim Moorehead.
“We're asking that this discrepancy, this mapping data problem be addressed,” says Jirak.
The meeting concluded with comments from Mitch Drake, CEO of Golden Bear Broadband- the overseeing entity for the NCRMMI project. “At this point, the bulk of our application is being denied. It looks like only two routes- one in Modoc and one in Siskiyou County will be funded.” The project is being challenged by major telecom carriers, in part because it traverses incumbent territories such as Santa Rosa. “We might have to pass through a city infrastructure to access the next community. This infrastructure will enable existing providers to expand and extend their networks to places they want to go but can't. If needed, we'll provide low-cost backhaul to regional Internet service providers, but this is not going to put ATT or Verizon out of business,” says Drake.
Carriers also have access to CASF money and federal ConnectAmerica funds. “They're not going after those moneys, but they're fighting those who are trying to solve these problems. Rural Internet requires an infrastructure, and the carriers are not going to do anything about this,” Drake concludes.
“We're working with the system, working together and working to unify the entire northern portion of the state. We believe this is the key to resolving these issues. We'll work with anyone who will work with us,” Moorehead concludes.
For more information on the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County visithttp://www.mendocinobroadband.org.