A $138 million initiative to extend high-speed Internet capacity to about 150,000 rural California households - including 3,520 in Sonoma and Mendocino counties - has collapsed, forcing advocates to start from scratch after nearly three years of planning.
The failure of the the Golden Bear Broadband proposal to get funding endorsement from the state Public Utilities Commission presents a substantial setback for local organizers and frustrated consumers who stood to benefit from a new fiber optic-based network designed to connect 16 northern counties and provide the anchor for expansion of fast, affordable service across more than a quarter of the state.
"It was a devastating blow," Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said of Golden Bear's withdrawal from the plan, "and we'll just have to figure out what next steps to take."
Broadband "is a necessity," said Cazadero resident Mike Nicholls, manager of a countywide effort to expand high-speed Internet service called Access Sonoma Broadband. "It's not a luxury."
The Golden Bear project represented critical investment in geographically remote, rugged and sparsely populated areas left behind by the digital age because of their limited financial appeal to established commercial carriers.
And yet< some of those major carriers helped scuttle the plan, which was contingent on a $119 million state grant, by challenging the need for new fiber optic routes where Golden Bear proposed to build them.
The project would have included a stretch of Highway 1 corridor along the North Coast that offered hope to isolated, coastal communities from Bodega Bay to Sea Ranch, and north to Westport in Mendocino County. It also would have included mountainous areas like Cazadero and Occidental, where folks have been scraping together slow, high-cost, spotty Internet access through any means necessary.
Rings of fiber optic line looped between the coast and a north-south route along Highway 101 through Petaluma on the south end, Laytonville on the north and Ukiah and Boonville in between, would have ensured connectivity had any portion failed temporarily.
The coast plan also included up to 33 fiber-fed wireless towers extending service beyond the main fiber optic routes, as well as connections to 50 so-called anchor institutions such as schools, libraries and health delivery facilities.
Regional representatives for Comcast, AT&T and Verizon did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. But a spokesman for that California Public Utilities Commission, which administers the grants, said the project was analyzed fairly.
It's not clear how many people would have benefitted from the extension of service under Golden Bear, given discrepancies in the state's accounting of those who remain without service and changes to service coverage in some areas since the grant proposal was filed in January 2013. Golden Bear's infrastructure was intended to allow expansion over several decades.
But for those who will continue without service, the loss hits "very, very hard," said Trish Steel, administrative coordinator for Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County.
"It's potentially a big loss for, not only residents, but for businesses - not only along the (Route 1) corridor, but extending from that corridor inland," said Steve Sharpe, an analyst for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
"In this county, we've got a lot of businesses, we've got a lot of tourist industry, we've got a lot of ag business," Sharpe said. "We've got anchor institutions - schools, health care facilities - that will not be able to have reliable, high speed and high quality broadband connection."
The crucial need for universal high-speed Internet service is acknowledged in state and federal grant programs aimed at ensuring broadband deployment to the isolated areas of the nation according to established benchmarks and time frames.
These programs and potential subsidies have driven grassroots efforts on the North Coast and elsewhere to gather support for broadband access, in part through regional planning groups developed under the California Advanced Services Fund grant program overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Sonoma and Mendocino counties are among those that eventually partnered with Golden Bear Broadband, a limited liability corporation created by Native Business Enterprise and Siskiyou Telephone Company to address needs in Northern California.
The project would not have provided immediate broadband service to everyone. It was mostly what's called a "middle mile" project, providing the platform from which they and other providers could offer affordable "last mile" service to individual homes and businesses.