Subscribe

Billions of dollars coming for broadband upgrades, seeking to close digital divide for North Coast residents

Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots of high-speed internet is now a multi-billion dollar undertaking by Congress and California lawmakers pouring a collective $71 billion into the effort.|

North Bay Q&A

Sonoma County readers asked The Press Democrat why broadband service in west county was so limited and whether anything was being done to change that.

We want to know what you're curious about in Sonoma County. ​What problems do you want us to investigate? What issues need to be explained?

Whether it's a burning question or something that just piqued your curiosity, share it here. We'll work to dig up the answers and share them with you.

Visit pressdemocrat.com/north-bay-qa/ to pose your question and vote on questions submitted by other readers.

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.”

Enrique Sanchez, director of emergency services, left, and Randy Marrufo, water operations, share a laugh as they complete paperwork online thanks to a 200-foot tower recently installed at the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians community in the northwest corner of Sonoma County, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, bringing broadband service to about 70 residents. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Enrique Sanchez, director of emergency services, left, and Randy Marrufo, water operations, share a laugh as they complete paperwork online thanks to a 200-foot tower recently installed at the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians community in the northwest corner of Sonoma County, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, bringing broadband service to about 70 residents. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

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.

Ethnicity, income factors in broadband access

Pew Research Center, which has tracked Americans’ internet use since 2000, reports income and ethnicity factors in the digital divide, the gap between haves and have-nots of broadband access.

Household income Broadband at home

$75,000+ 92%

$50,000-$74,999 87%

$30,000-$49,999 74%

Less than $30,000 57%

Ethnicity

White adults 80%

Black adults 71%

Hispanic adults 65%

Source: Pew Research Center

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.

Broadband “helps keep students engaged in their school work” and “allows local businesses to grow,” he said.

No specific projects have been identified for the federal funding, which will be allocated by state officials.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last month announced the first 18 projects — ranging the length of the state from Siskiyou to San Diego county — funded by California’s multiyear investment in high-speed internet.

“California is committed to taking on the challenges laid bare by the pandemic, including the digital divide holding back too many communities across the state,” he said in a news release.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in a tweet it was the “largest high-speed internet project in America history.”

The Mendocino-Lake project would install high-capacity internet lines serving Upper Lake, Kelseyville and Robinson Rancheria in Lake County and Laughlin in Mendocino County.

“Hundreds of thousands of folks, here at home in Lake County and throughout the North Coast, are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” McGuire said. “This is about to change.”

In Sonoma County, 94 percent of 206,097 homes have broadband, according to the PUC data, but there are significant gaps.

“Western Sonoma County is where the challenges are,” said Dane Jasper, CEO and co-founder of Santa Rosa-based Sonic, the largest independent internet provider in Northern California.

The problem there and along much of the coast is that providers are reluctant to string cables over miles of sparsely populated areas to serve a limited number of customers with little economic return, he said.

Huffman cited broadband gaps in western Marin County and “huge pockets” of no service on the Mendocino County coast and communities such as Willits and Laytonville.

Starlink, a provider using low-orbit satellites, can deliver “pretty good” internet to any place, but the monthly fee and equipment are expensive, Jasper said.

California’s $6 billion expansion program should “largely solve the availability question,” he said, but “the other big issue is affordability.”

Broadband is widely available in most urban areas, but about 20% of households do not subscribe, mostly because they cannot afford it, Jasper said.

The federal infrastructure funding earmarks $14.2 billion nationwide to provide a $30-a-month voucher for low-income people to pay for internet service. A White House report said 10.6 million Californians — 27% of the population — would be eligible for the discount program.

A 200-foot tower recently installed at the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians community in the northwest corner of Sonoma County pokes up above the treeline, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The antenna brings broadband service to about 70 residents. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A 200-foot tower recently installed at the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians community in the northwest corner of Sonoma County pokes up above the treeline, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The antenna brings broadband service to about 70 residents. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Vouchers would be “the greatest enhancement in technology equity,” said Steve Herrington, the Sonoma County superintendent of schools. “You can have broadband but many low-income families can’t afford it.”

COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, prompting schools to suddenly shift to remote learning, brought California’s digital divide “out of the shadows and to the forefront of public policy,” the nonprofit online newsroom CalMatters reported in April.

One in five California households with kindergarten to 12th grade students told the Census Bureau in March they do not always have the internet access needed for virtual school, the report said.

Now back in classrooms, students still depend on internet connections for learning. “You don’t do homework in a book,” Herrington said.

The internet has largely replaced textbooks, a benefit because educational materials can be updated constantly, he said.

Judy Sakaki, Sonoma State University president, said at a press conference hosted by Thompson last week that broadband expansion “really matters” for higher education in the state and on her Rohnert Park campus.

Broadband enables SSU to connect with students in Mendocino and Lake counties, she said.

In a region recently plagued by wildfires, floods and windstorms, the internet is increasingly important for disaster response, said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director.

Situational awareness, emergency alerts and first responder communications depend on wireless and wireline broadband systems, he said.

“Disruptions or an inability to access these systems directly jeopardizes public safety,” Godley said.

Sonoma Valley Fire Protection District Chief Steve Akre, whose agency serves 74 square miles with about 48,000 residents, said internet coverage is “sometimes spotty” in the district’s rural reaches.

Priority for broadband expansion should go to “pockets of northwest California that are most susceptible to wildfires,” Scott Miller, president of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said in a Press Democrat Close to Home column in September.

Several Humboldt County communities — Alderpoint, Myers Flat, Weott and Redcrest — as well as Inverness in Marin County — are in high fire-threat areas and lack adequate high-speed internet, he said.

Digital literacy — assuring that people who did not grow up with computers or are not fluent in English know how to access and use the internet — is another aspect of bridging the digital divide, Jasper said.

The infrastructure bill includes $2.75 billion nationwide for digital inclusion and equity projects, such as improving digital literacy or online skills for seniors.

Frances Johnson, superintendent at Kashia Elementary School, a public school on the remote rancheria, welcomed the arrival of broadband at the homes of her 11 students.

But, she said, parents need to be schooled on supervising their children’s use of the internet.

“Some parts are OK and some are not OK,” Johnson said.

Broadband connection by counties

Seven North Coast and North Bay counties have widely varying proportions of broadband service, also known as high-speed internet.

County: Sonoma

Total housing units: 206,097

Served units: 194,125

Percent served: 94.2%

Unserved: 11,972

Percent unserved: 5.8%

County: Napa

Total housing units: 55,289

Served units: 50,792

Percent served: 91.9%

Unserved: 4,497

Percent unserved: 8.1%

County: Lake

Total housing units: 34,418

Served units: 28,726

Percent served: 83.5%

Unserved: 5,692

Percent unserved: 16.5%

County: Mendocino

Total housing units: 40,974

Served units: 29,270

Percent served: 71.4%

Unserved: 11,704

Percent unserved: 28.6%

County: Humboldt

Total housing units: 63,330

Served units: 50,637

Percent served: 80%

Unserved: 12,693

Percent unserved: 20%

County: Del Norte

Total housing units: 11,393

Served units: 10,144

Percent served: 89%

Unserved: 1,249

Percent unserved: 11%

County: Trinity

Total housing units: 8,964

Served units: 1,817

Percent served: 20.3%

Unserved: 7,147

Percent unserved: 79.7%

California

Total housing units: 14,329,863

Served units: 13,518,451

Percent served: 94.3%

Unserved: 811,412

Percent unserved: 5.7%

Source: California Public Utilities Commission, Fixed Broadband Deployment

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-888-9149 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

North Bay Q&A

Sonoma County readers asked The Press Democrat why broadband service in west county was so limited and whether anything was being done to change that.

We want to know what you're curious about in Sonoma County. ​What problems do you want us to investigate? What issues need to be explained?

Whether it's a burning question or something that just piqued your curiosity, share it here. We'll work to dig up the answers and share them with you.

Visit pressdemocrat.com/north-bay-qa/ to pose your question and vote on questions submitted by other readers.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette