At Occidental Video and Internet Cafe, anachronistic evidence of the great digital divide is everywhere.
It’s in the cafe’s dusty computers rented out to locals for $4 an hour ($2 for students) to access broadband Internet service. And it’s in the musty shelves of DVD movies and blockbuster cable shows city-dwellers can watch at home or stream on HBO Go or Netflix.
Maleika Dance, an area resident who works at the cafe and video store, said many customers use the Internet cafe because they do not have access to broadband services at home.
Danny Candib, the owner of the cafe, said some people come in to maintain their website, check their Facebook page or conduct online banking. The Internet, Candib said, is as important today as electricity was generations ago.
“There are some people who are forced to come in and use it,” Candib said.
That’s a familiar story for many rural residents on the North Coast, where the farther you get from Highway 101, the fewer options you have for actively participating in the 21st century.
A recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau tells that story.
According to the census survey, which was released last week, the Santa Rosa metropolitan area has among the highest rates of broadband use in California and the rest of the country.
But the bad news in Sonoma County is if you don’t live near Highway 101, you might as well live in Mississippi or other Deep South communities where high-speed Internet access is a luxury.
The survey did not include metro areas with populations smaller than 65,000 people, so it does not contain statistics for places like Occidental, Freestone or Cazadero.
In Ukiah, 82 percent of households have a computer, but just under 65 percent of residents in the Mendocino County seat have high-speed broadband Internet service, according to the survey.
That statistic is comparable to the Jackson metro area in Mississippi, where 64.2 percent of households have broadband. In fact, the nation’s lowest state averages for broadband use are in Mississippi, at 62.3 percent, and Arkansas, with 65.7 percent.
California has a state average of 77.4 percent, while the national average is 72.9 percent.
“This is yet another study reinforcing the ‘digital divide,’ ” said Brian Churm, technical chair of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County.
Churm said that rural communities in the North Coast are all too familiar with this divide, where “fast Internet is available to those who live in cities and can afford it.”
In the Santa Rosa metro area, which includes Petaluma, 81.3 percent of households have broadband Internet service. That’s comparable to other high-penetration broadband metro areas in the state, such as San Francisco (82.5 percent), Napa (82.8 percent) and Santa Cruz-Watsonville (82.4 percent).
As expected, at 86 percent the metro area defined by San Jose, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale has the highest average household broadband penetration.
For years, the Broadband Alliance has been working with other North Coast groups to improve and make available high-speed Internet services in rural and coastal communities.
Earlier this year, an ambitious 16-county, $138 million project for expanding broadband service to about 150,000 rural California households failed to get necessary funding from the state Public Utilities Commission.
The Golden Bear Broadband proposal, nearly three years in the making, would have benefited 3,520 households in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. That project has been replaced by a smaller effort that has brought together broadband advocates from Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties.
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