Close to Home: Joy Road plight is common in rural areas

For most Californians, getting high-speed internet at home takes about a week. You figure out which company provides broadband and at what cost, make an appointment for service installation and get connected.

But in rural Sonoma County, that process has taken 500 residents along Joy Road four years — and the reasons have everything to do with the high cost of broadband infrastructure and the way telecom companies avoid providing high-speed internet service in sparsely populated areas.

Although the greater Joy Road area will soon get broadband, thanks to a $7.7 million infrastructure grant from the state Public Utilities Commission's California Advanced Services Fund, the story of Sonoma County's 'Gigafy Occidental' project is typical of what rural residents face throughout the state. It is also an allegory about the need to subsidize high-speed internet infrastructure in rural areas.

In September 2012, residents of Joy Road — a beautiful redwood-dotted area southwest of Occidental — met to discuss their high-speed internet problems. Concern was growing that because it was impossible to download or upload documents for work or school, people were moving out and home values were dropping.

The residents, who became known as Connect Joy Road Area, launched a two-pronged attack: one on the area's internet service providers, which had been avoiding broadband service requests; and one on the California Public Utilities Commission, which reported that the Joy Road area already had high-speed internet service.

You might ask: Why would the CPUC claim such a thing? Answer: Because its maps are based on faulty data reported by the large telecom providers.

Connect Joy Road Area set out to prove that the mapping data was incorrect. The first step was to obtain formal rejection letters from Comcast, AT&T and Verizon for broadband service requests. By March 2013, the group had sent 69 testimonial letters to the CPUC, challenging its mapping of the area.

Next, the Joy Road group approached other internet service providers. But the results were far from immediate. It took nearly three more years to find a company willing to pursue the project.

The problem, of course, was cost. Internet service providers did not see an investment in the area as financially worthy. The only way was to get the project done was to apply for infrastructure grant money from the California Advanced Services Fund and create a public-private infrastructure project.

The fund is a unique state mechanism: Since December 2007, the state Legislature has authorized the CPUC to collect several pennies per month on Californians' phone bills to go toward broadband infrastructure investments in unserved and underserved areas. To date, the California Advanced Services Fund has connected more than 300,000 households in the state to broadband. Without the fund, the greater Joy Road area might have been severed from our digital economy for much longer. And without the fund, Race Communications, a small California internet service provider, would not have been able to afford the cost of providing broadband infrastructure to Joy Road.

The Joy Road neighborhood is one of many rural areas in California struggling to get broadband internet. This is ironic in the state known the world over for advanced communication technology. It is also ironic that many legislators do not understand the value or workings of the California Advanced Services Fund, which will soon be out of money for infrastructure deployment.

If the Gigafy Occidental project proves anything, it is that we need to reactivate funding for the fund. In the early 20th century, our government subsidized rural electrification because electricity spelled development and progress. In the early 21st century, our government must subsidize broadband infrastructure because high-speed internet results in the same forces.

Tom West is manager of the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

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