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Upcoming meetings

An educational workshop and series of public focus groups on high-speed broadband need and availability in Sonoma County are scheduled next week as part of the county’s strategic planning for digital access:

Tuesday, Sept. 12th

Educational Broadband Workshop, 1-5 p.m.

Finley Community Center, 2060 W. College Ave., Santa Rosa

Wednesday, Sept. 13

Public Safety Focus Group, 8-9:30 a.m.

Sonoma County Economic Development Board, 141 Stony Point Circle, #110, Santa Rosa

Healthcare Focus Group 10–11:30 a.m.,

Sonoma County Economic Development Board, 141 Stony Point Circle, #110, Santa Rosa

1st District Focus Group, 1-3 p.m.

La Luz Center, 17560 Greger St., Sonoma

2nd District Focus Group, 4-6 p.m.

Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, 6 Petaluma Blvd. North,, #A-2, Petaluma

Thursday, Sept. 14th

Municipal Officials/Staff Focus Group, 8-9:30 a.m.

Sonoma County Economic Development Board, 141 Stony Point Circle, #110, Santa Rosa

Agriculture Focus Group, 10-11:30 a.m.

Sonoma County Economic Development Board, 141 Stony Point Circle, #110, Santa Rosa

4th District Focus Group, 1-3 p.m.

Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, 217 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg

5th District Focus Group, 4-6 p.m.

Sebastopol Veteran’s Memorial Building, 282 S. High St., Sebastopol

3rd District Focus Group, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Sonoma County Economic Development Board, 141 Stony Point Circle, #110, Santa Rosa

Business owners are asked to complete a broadband availability survey at surveymonkey.com/r/SONOMAEBD.

Advocates in a yearslong campaign to extend high-speed internet access to underserved rural and remote corners of Sonoma County are launching a new initiative aimed at engaging everyone in the county.

Sonoma County still has about 7,300 households with little or no broadband service that others rely on daily to conduct business and personal affairs.

Overall, more than 4,430 of the county’s households — nearly 3 percent — have no connectivity at all, county Supervisor Shirlee Zane wrote in a recent letter on the subject.

Some of the region’s schools, and business, public safety, medical and other facilities also operate in geographic pockets without affordable, reliable internet service, sometimes just outside larger cities like Santa Rosa and Petaluma, according to Steve Sharpe, an analyst with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Over the next several months, the board intends to identify technical and funding options for advancing high-speed, fiber-optic or even wireless access to areas commercial telecommunications providers have not deemed profitable to serve.

The key is to leverage existing networks cost-efficiently, possibly through local investment, said Sharpe, who is helping lead this strategic planning process.

“Broadband,” said Sonoma County Economic Development Director Ben Stone, “is a necessity and no longer a luxury for residents, businesses and anchor institutions, including health care facilities, public safety agencies and schools. The strategic plan will analyze and make recommendations for improving access to internet services.”

The Economic Development Board recently contracted with a consulting firm, Magellan Advisors, to develop a strategic plan by next spring to present before the Board of Supervisors. The $90,000 Magellan contract is being financed in part through a two-year, $55,000 grant from the California Advanced Services Fund. Sharpe said the remainder will come from Sonoma Clean Power, the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Economic Development Board.

Unlike past efforts focused primarily on advancing services in rural west county and coastal areas, the current plan targets businesses, industry groups, agricultural interests, and institutions like libraries and health care facilities that have a stake in improved connectivity, Sharpe said.

It also includes the county’s nine cities, with an eye toward possible public/private partnerships and scaled efficiencies.

The board is working to engage telecom providers in order to identify existing infrastructure and potential connection points for fiber-based technology that would extend the reach of broadband service.

“It’s extremely vital to the county,” said Mike Nicholls, co-chairman of Access Sonoma Broadband, a group assembled in 2012 under the auspices of county economic development to advance connectivity in the region.

The first phase of the strategic planning is assessing current service throughout the county, as well as determining need.

In addition to conducting interviews and a survey of business users, Magellan and its Sonoma County partners are hosting a series of public meetings this week beginning Tuesday with an education workshop at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa, from 1 to 5 p.m.

Focus groups scheduled Wednesday and Thursday include representatives from public safety, health care, agriculture and county governance, as well as constituents from each of the five county supervisorial districts.

Business operators are asked to complete a survey about their broadband needs at surveymonkey.com/r/SONOMAEBD.

The nation’s so-called “digital divide” has led to both state and federal grant funds being given to rural areas, especially to modernize infrastructure.

Cornerstone Properties' North Bay deals

2006: Purchased two Santa Rosa properties: an 18,700square-foot retail center at 2720 Santa Rosa Ave. and the 156,000-square-foot former Weigh-Tronix complex at 2320 Airport Blvd.

2010: Purchased the fivebuilding, 170,000-square-foot former Cisco Systems campus in north Petaluma.

2011: Purchased 93,000 square feet in two former Equity Office office buildings in north Petaluma.

2013: Sold 1380 Redwood Way in Petaluma's Redwood Business Park.

2014: Purchased 130,000 square feet in three buildings near the airport. Purchased the 58,000-squarefoot Press Democrat building on Mendocino Avenue and four nearby parking lots from Halifax Media Group.

But funding is limited, and progress is slow, partly because of misleading data about where service actually exists and partly from commercial providers’ reluctance to surrender claims on areas they might try to develop later.

A $138 million initiative to connect 16 Northern California counties, including 3,520 households in rural areas of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, was derailed three years ago because existing providers challenged the eligibility of numerous areas within the plan boundary. The proposal was contingent on state grant funding aimed at helping communities defined as “underserved.” The challenges disqualified enough areas in the plan that it no longer was cost-effective.

The community of Occidental, particularly Joy Road, whose residents organized five years ago to bring high-speed internet service to their neighborhood, has been a key player in collaborative efforts to expand rural broadband on the North Coast.

A plan that’s finally funded and in place through Race Communications, which focuses on remote, rural communities in California, should deliver fully functional fiber connectivity to about 500 households over more than 4 square miles by spring, Nicholls said.

But there remain plenty of locations still underserved, including large parts of Dry Creek, home to dozens of wineries dependent on low-end, DSL internet on traditional copper phone lines, and Warm Springs Dam and the fish hatchery, Nicholls said. About 200 homes in the tony Foothills subdivision north of Santa Rosa are dependent on dial-up and expensive satellite service.

“We’ve got broad swaths of people out here still on dial-up,” said Nicholls, a Cazadero resident.

Cal Sandeen, an intern and project manager with the economic development team, said he doesn’t have internet service at his home on the Russian River in Forestville, a startling contrast to the free, readily available wireless access he enjoyed even on the beach while studying abroad in Spain a few years ago.

“We’re excited,” Sharpe said. “We’re excited about this project.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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