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PD Editorial: Don't give up on rural broadband

  • Hoa Phan, senior staff engineer at Broadcom, tests the next generation broadband access networks in their Petaluma lab. (PD File)

The Bay Area is ground zero of the digital revolution, but for many people around these parts it might as well be a million miles away. Rural California remains underserved by broadband Internet. Fortunately, local leaders have not given up on ensuring no one is left behind when it comes to the essential communications technology of the 21st century.

The broadband dream almost evaporated into so many bits and bytes a few months ago when the California Public Utilities Commission shot down the Golden Bear Broadband proposal for a fiber optic-based network that would have connected 16 northern counties. That backbone would have allowed providers to offer affordable service to homes, businesses and public institutions that now pay high rates, if they can get decent service at all.

Cost and industry opposition doomed the plan. Golden Bear Broadband needed a $119 million state grant to bring service within reach of 150,000 rural households, including 3,520 in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Meanwhile, established providers lobbied against a new player entering the market.

It was disappointing that the CPUC listened to the very providers who had so far failed to offer affordable broadband service to the swaths of California with low population density.

To the commission’s credit, however, it told communities to try again. It provided $250,000 for Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties to develop a new plan. Sonoma supervisors recently signed off on a smaller partnership that will produce a detailed map of reliable broadband Internet service in the four counties.

Once that map is complete, the new pitch for state aid to expand service will be stronger.

What counts as broadband today might not count tomorrow. The Federal Communications Commission recently announced that it is considering increasing the minimum threshold for what even counts as broadband. Downloading at 4 megabits per second counts now, but the FCC might increase that to 10, 15 or even 25 Mbps. Four Mbps is barely enough to stream a movie let alone do business, videoconference, research homework and support the many connected devices in a modern household.

Twenty years ago, broadband service was a luxury; today, it is a necessity for residents, businesses, schools and hospitals to engage fully in the modern world. Without fast, reliable data access, businesses cannot thrive and rural parts of California cannot compete. Those regions often struggle economically, but this is one hurdle that can and should be removed.

Having to rely on spotty, slow service is understandably frustrating. History offers some perspective, though.

When electricity and landline telephones were the newest technologies sweeping the country and the world, it took decades for anything close to full deployment in rural areas. State and federal subsidies helped it happen, but the process was a slow one of incremental access in sparsely populated, hard-to-reach areas. It’s easy to string fiber or copper along city streets, much harder over mountains and rivers.

Living away from population centers has many advantages, especially in a part of the country where the natural beauty is sublime. The rest can be delivered; it just takes some work, and local leaders — elected and otherwise — who are willing to keep at it.


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