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Santa Rosa internet provider Sonic debuts speedy fiber optic network, as California preps ambitious broadband expansion

Internet service providers serving Santa Rosa

Home or business access comes via technology such as cable, digital subscriber lines, wireless networks, fiber optics and satellite.

AT&T, speeds up to 940 Mbps download; 1,000 Mbps upload

Comcast Xfinity, speeds up to 1,200 Mbps download; 35 Mbps upload

Digitalpath.net, speeds up to 75 Mbps download; 10 Mbps upload

Earthlink, speeds up to 940 Mbps download; 1,000 Mbps upload

HughesNet, speeds up to 25 Mbps download; 3 Mbps upload

Sonic, speeds up to 10,000 Mbps download; 10,000 Mbps upload

Viasat, speeds up to 50 Mbps download; 3 Mbps upload

Source: BroadbandNow, Federal Communications Commission

The coronavirus pandemic made dependable and affordable internet perhaps the most critical tool for people to work remotely and for students to participate in virtual classes at home.

Workers have been relying on more and more internet bandwidth to provide them with the transmission speeds and video capabilities they had been accustomed to at the office.

When schools in Sonoma County and nationwide turned to the internet in the spring of 2020 for teachers to conduct their classroom instruction virtually, the so-called digital divide highlighted the geographic and economic inequities of access to reliable broadband.

Against this backdrop, Santa Rosa-based Sonic, the largest independent internet provider in Northern California, with about 150,000 customers from Watsonville to Fort Bragg and in parts of the Los Angeles and Sacramento areas, decided last year to invest $10 million in a new fiber optic broadband network in its hometown. By next August, the company will finish the first part of its lightning-quick residential internet network.

Customers connected will have the capability to both download data, movies and games and upload video and system backups on several devices in a home, at up to 10,000 megabits per second. Dane Jasper, CEO and Sonic’s co-founder, called it “silly fast” performance.

This month, Sonic started customer activation to this fiber network in the central and eastern parts of Santa Rosa, including the McDonald Avenue neighborhood where the company got its humble start in 1994 from Jasper’s boyhood home when he was a 21-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student. Its original offering was dial-up internet, for those of us who remember that relic.

Sonic’s will be the fastest fiber optic broadband network mass marketed to households at reasonable pricing that Jasper says he’s not aware of anywhere else in the United States. In the initial wave of customer connectivity, Sonic expects to enable 15,000 of the city’s 60,000 homes to gain access for $40 a month. After a year, the monthly cost will increase to $50. By comparison, for example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, a municipal utility provider, offers similar high-speed residential internet service, but for $300 a month.

“It’s faster than most people need, which is what you want for a broadband provider,” Jasper told me, indicating the intense network speed probably will be sufficient for Sonic customers for a decade as they acquire new laptops and other computer equipment.

Olivia Browning, a professional photographer living in a one-bedroom apartment on Charles Street in Santa Rosa near Luther Burbank Gardens, is going to be one of the first customers with access to Sonic’s ultra-fast fiber network.

Browning said it will be convenient to be able to ramp up her internet speed for photo editing. Her activation coincides with her plans to buy a new Mac laptop so she expects to have the hardware to take advantage of the blazing speed. And buying internet from Sonic, she told me, fits into her habit of “going local” with her purchases whenever she can.

Many consumers in America have home broadband internet connections from their cable company capable of download transmission of at least 100 Mbps, with much slower upload speeds, according to Federal Communications Commission data. For many years, Sonic’s primary business and residential internet service has been a much faster 1,000 Mbps.

The FCC’s definition of broadband, or high-speed, internet service is expected to accelerate at the behest of Congress, from a minimum of 25 Mbps for downloads to 100 Mbps for downloads, and from 3 Mbps for uploads to 20 Mbps for uploads.

Home or business access comes via technology such as cable, digital subscriber lines that use telephone lines to transmit data, wireless networks, fiber optics and satellite. Fiber internet provides the fastest speeds, typically 1,000 Mbps or greater. However, only 44% of Americans have access to it, according to FCC data, since internet access in most locales is dominated by one or two big players.

Duopoly dominates internet access

Most internet connectivity of any kind nationwide is delivered by a duopoly, controlled either by a cable company — most often Comcast — or a legacy Bell telephone provider such as AT&T or Verizon. Both offer bundled services: cable TV and internet from the cable company or telephone service and broadband from the phone company.

Today, U.S. consumers pay the highest prices in the developed world for high-speed internet connections. “Consumers want more choices for internet access,” Sonic’s CEO said, noting that America needs another 1,000 more independent providers to build broadband networks to sufficiently reduce prices for households. “Creating competition is so important.”

Internet service providers serving Santa Rosa

Home or business access comes via technology such as cable, digital subscriber lines, wireless networks, fiber optics and satellite.

AT&T, speeds up to 940 Mbps download; 1,000 Mbps upload

Comcast Xfinity, speeds up to 1,200 Mbps download; 35 Mbps upload

Digitalpath.net, speeds up to 75 Mbps download; 10 Mbps upload

Earthlink, speeds up to 940 Mbps download; 1,000 Mbps upload

HughesNet, speeds up to 25 Mbps download; 3 Mbps upload

Sonic, speeds up to 10,000 Mbps download; 10,000 Mbps upload

Viasat, speeds up to 50 Mbps download; 3 Mbps upload

Source: BroadbandNow, Federal Communications Commission

The median monthly price paid for broadband nationally among the respondents to a Consumer Reports survey in August was $70 a month. Based on Ookla Speedtest scores that same month, the average broadband data transmission speeds to U.S. households hit close to 199 Mbps for downloads and 65 Mbps for uploads. That ranked the United States No. 12 in the world for the month, with Singapore having the fastest home internet service on average at 262 Mbps.

That national average from speed testing is somewhat misleading, though, because the fastest internet is concentrated in East Coast states, particularly Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and in the most populated states of Texas, California (9th fastest in U.S.) and New York, according to HighSpeedInternet.com’s rankings network mapping based on speed tests from 3,100 cities and FCC data. Rural states like Montana, West Virginia and Idaho have the slowest average internet speeds.

However, many internet users in rural America, including parts of California and Sonoma County, are stuck with internet speeds at 15 Mbps or slower, plus frequent connection interruptions. That hinders working at home and doing schoolwork online.

While there’s much focus on rural, unconnected areas, Jasper said about 20% of urban and suburban households nationwide have opted for no internet service although critical infrastructure is in place. To help offset challenges of affordability, poor digital literacy and lack of access to computer devices, he’s in favor of Congress making permanent the $50 federal monthly credit during the pandemic for internet access for low-income families.

“Internet access is really essential,” he said, for work, education and community health and well-being.

California’s broadband push

On Oct. 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of four broadband-related bills into law. Together with $6 billion in federal and state money, the measures that will take effect Jan. 1 position the state to make an unprecedented move to bridge the so-called digital divide by expanding broadband infrastructure for home access across California. The overarching goal is to stimulate greater competition among internet providers, so in turn they’ll offer faster internet service to more households and ultimately charge less for it.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, authored one of the bills, AB 41. It requires Caltrans to dig a “conduit,” or a microtrench a foot deep and an inch wide, in the ground for fiber optic line installation whenever doing state highway expansion or widening projects in priority areas. Wood said it is 15 times less expensive to dig the conduits when roadwork is being done rather than waiting to do it when an actual fiber optic broadband project starts.

The second key piece of the measure authorizes the state Public Utilities Commission to work with internet providers to keep an updated map of homes served across the state with reliable broadband connections.

Wood’s 2nd Assembly District, which includes a big area from central Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay and up the Pacific Coast to Oregon, has one of the lowest household penetration levels of broadband service in California, he told me. In his district, including 300 miles of coastline, 83% of households have broadband connections, some much speedier and dependable than others.

Federal windfall complements state laws

Wood said the intent of the new state laws is to foster broadband innovation like Sonic’s fiber network to provide consumers with more internet service choices at cheaper prices.

“Done right, California’s investment, combined with federal broadband infrastructure funding, has the potential to connect every family and small business to faster speeds, lower prices and competition that will unlock billions in private investment,” said Chip Pickering, CEO of Incompas, a membership trade group in Washington, D.C. for internet providers, including Sonic.

Wood said the pandemic and its remote work and online school instruction “shined a light” on communities and sections of them with none or consistently unreliable internet service.

Broadband expansion has been a priority for him and the state Legislature the past few years. With $4 billion allocated to the state in the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to spend on it over the next 4 years, now is the time to make possible “broadband for all in California,” Wood told me.

“We either use the money or lose the money,” he said of the federal funding, calling it a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to strive to get as many homes as possible connected to high-speed internet.

Fiber optic speed of light

Sonic’s new ultra-fast fiber optic network delivers internet connectivity over the most advanced technology. Fiber optics transfer data via light traveling through small, flexible glass strands as thin as hair. The light travels faster than data and images do over copper wires or telephone lines, and it isn’t susceptible to power outages, weather, age or distance. Therefore, with fiber, consumers can get the fastest, most reliable broadband network available.

Jasper told me the California legislative package Newsom just signed “makes clear to cities the importance of broadband deployment” and he’s “cautiously optimistic” it will spur opportunities for independent internet providers to install underground fiber optic lines statewide to more homes.

The critical state policy to Jasper is SB 378, which will require municipalities to allow fiber conduits to be dug into the ground at existing residential subdivisions. That’ll enable internet providers like Sonic to have the chance to install fiber optics, just as phone and cable companies already were given room for their respective voice and data transmission wiring. Theoretically, this measure will finally start putting independent broadband providers on a fair playing field with much larger national telecom players.

Because the fiber optic glass lines are so thin, they can fit in the microtrenches that are much smaller than open trenches for water pipes or electrical wires, and those small openings make little impact on the area environment, Jasper said.

Pandemic exposed digital divide

After virtual and hybrid instruction in 2020 exposed gaps in students’ home internet connections countywide, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington told me the end-of-summer return to classrooms for the 2021-2022 school year has made a great improvement for the county’s 69,000 public school students’ ability in 40 districts to do schoolwork online while on school properties.

Already, 96 school campuses in the county are connected to ultra-fast fiber optic internet via Sonic. Another 26 campuses are equipped with AT&T’s fiber broadband service.

There are still access and spotty internet service issues for students while at home, depending on where they live and their families’ ability to pay for faster network speeds.

“Some parents can’t afford it,” Herrington said of reliable broadband at home. “That’s where you get to the equity issue as it relates to learning, and equal (internet) access to all students. When you don’t have the dependable broadband at home that impedes learning.”

Meanwhile, homes in Sonoma Valley, the Sonoma Coast and small pockets in Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Windsor, Cotati and Rohnert Park are connected, but struggle with slower internet speeds for a variety of technical and geographic reasons, said Herrington and Cody Grosskopf, the chief technology officer for the county office of education.

These challenges are precisely what the governor and state lawmakers are trying to correct and overcome with the massive four-year broadband infrastructure and expansion push.

And right here in our backyard, Sonic, the 27-year-old independent provider — Consumer Reports in August ranked No. 1 in the country for customer satisfaction ahead of Google Fiber and Wave, both unavailable in Sonoma County — is helping by getting its fiber optic lines connected to Santa Rosa homes to deliver the lightning broadband it has offered schools and municipal service sites in Santa Rosa and Petaluma for their computer networks.

“We’ve offered business services than can deliver 10 gigabits (10,000 megabits) for a few years now,” Jasper told me. “What exciting is that this speed and technology is finally possible for homes.”

Send your tips and ideas as this column chronicles the local post-pandemic recovery to paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. Call or text 215-237-4448. Or you can message @BiznewsPaulB on Twitter.

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