New four-county effort to expand rural broadband
At Fort Ross State Historic Park, just north of Jenner along the coast, efforts to modernize the 3,400-acre tourist destination are being stifled by a problem rural communities throughout the North Coast face: slow and unreliable Internet connectivity that hampers interaction with an increasingly digital world.
Elsewhere in California, visitors to many of the 260-plus state parks can reap the benefits of technology upgrades. High-speed Internet allows them to send out status updates on Twitter and post photos to Instagram. Interactive guides and mobile phones open up educational activities and provide virtual docents, enhancing the experience for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
But Fort Ross, with an estimated 200,000 visitors annually, lags far behind in delivering digital amenities, its spotty cellular and Internet coverage a result of both its remote location in rugged terrain and the limited public and private technology dollars that flow to such areas.
“People want to connect, they want to be able to check in, post photos, share,” said Sarah Sweedler, president of the Fort Ross Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that supports the park and runs its gift shop. “They’re always surprised there’s no coverage.”
Five months ago, a 16-county partnership was the brightest hope to extend fast, affordable Internet service to 150,000 rural households, including 3,520 in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. But that $138 million initiative — contingent on a $119 million state grant — collapsed after failing to get a funding endorsement from the state Public Utilities Commission. Some major carriers helped scuttle the plan by challenging the need for new fiber-optic routes in rural areas.
Now, Sonoma County and its three neighbors — Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties — are rebooting plans to wire the region for the 21st century.
The Board of Supervisors this week signed off on the partnership, which aims to begin its work with a mapping effort to determine — house by house and business by business — who has access to reliable Internet service and who doesn’t.
“One of the biggest issues we’re confronting is closing the digital divide, and this mapping is really a data-based approach that will identify where we have the greatest need,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who on Tuesday was appointed to represent the county in the effort, dubbed the North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium. “We have to get broadband access to those who are underserved, especially in our rural communities in the county.”
For the next two years, backed with $250,000 in seed money from the state Public Utilities Commission, each of the four counties plans to develop regional maps that identify areas served by an array of Internet connections, whether it’s dial-up, satellite or broadband.
The goal would be to use the results to demonstrate and need and push for future state and federal funding to build a network of underground fiber-optic cables connecting libraries, rural fire and sheriff stations, businesses and schools.
“There’s a true disparity between the urban and rural parts of the county, so right now the first step is figuring out what need there is — what availability there is and on what speeds,” said Cazadero resident Mike Nicholls, who has been active in efforts to connect rural parts of the county, including the failed Golden Bear Broadband.