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.