Billions of dollars coming for broadband upgrades, seeking to close digital divide for North Coast residents
A 200-foot tower recently installed at a remote tribal rancheria in the northwest corner of Sonoma County brought broadband service to about 70 residents who saw an immediate difference in their lives. Their children can now do their homework and adults can search for jobs online.
A federal grant paid for the $471,000 tower that reaches over the treetops to pick up a broadband signal from Annapolis that can also carry wildfire and other emergency alerts, as well as downloading music and video games.
“We bridged the digital divide — tremendously,” said Vaughn Pena, tribal administrator of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians at the Stewarts Point Rancheria.
“It has opened up a lot of eyes,” he said.
Spanning the gap between the haves and have-nots of high-speed internet in an increasingly digital world is now a multibillion dollar undertaking by Congress and California lawmakers pouring a collective $71 billion into the effort.
California’s $6 billion investment is kicking off with about 80 miles of high-capacity internet lines in Lake and Mendocino counties, one of 18 initial projects statewide.
The infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last month included $65 billion to improve broadband service, with a minimum of $100 million designated for California and aimed at providing high-speed internet for an estimated 545,000 residents who are without it.
A question about access to quality broadband in west county and along the Sonoma Coast came from a Press Democrat reader as part of the newspaper’s North Bay Q&A series, which collects and answers readers’ questions about life in the region.
Broadband, also known as high-speed internet, is informally known as “anything that’s not dial-up,” and defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a minimum of 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
“This has the potential to be quite transformative,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said of the new investments in broadband coverage. “We’re looking at some tangible benefits in people’s daily lives.”
Broadband is indispensable for students, businesses and people in need of health care, especially veterans who must “undergo an odyssey” to reach a VA clinic, he said.
Huffman’s North Coast district includes three rural counties with significant broadband gaps: Mendocino with 28.6%, Humboldt with 20% and Trinity with 79.7% of housing units lacking high-speed service, according to the state Public Utilities Commission. Overall, 14.6% of the housing units in the sprawling rural district lack service.
Sonoma County’s gap is 5.8%, lowest among seven North Bay and North Coast counties and essentially equal to the statewide gap of 5.7% of more than 14 million housing units.
In San Francisco, 99.1% of housing units are connected; none are in Sierra County, home of Downieville, north of Truckee.
Critics say the commission’s data, derived from internet service provider reports to the Federal Communications Commission, overstates broadband coverage.
For example, an analysis by Kill the Cable Bill, a company focused on alternatives to cable television, using data from the Census Bureau and Pew Research Center, said 19.3% of Sonoma County households lack broadband, ranking second lowest among 81 mid-size metropolitan areas nationwide. That is compared to 29.2% of households nationwide.
“Ensuring reliable access to quality broadband is crucial for our district,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said in an email. “This has only gotten more important over the last two years when we relied on the internet to stay connected to our schools, our doctors and our friends and loved ones.”
In Thompson’s district, which includes all of Napa County and parts of Sonoma, Lake, Solano and Contra Costa counties, just 4.5% of housing units lack broadband, according to the PUC.