New four-county effort to expand rural broadband

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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.

“We’re trying to reinvent ourselves,” Nicholls said.

Data collection kicks off this month in the most hard-to-reach areas of the county, including Jenner, The Sea Ranch, Cazadero, Joy Road west of Occidental and the Dry Creek Valley. The areas are among 168 identified by state public utilities officials as the most lacking in reliable Internet access.

“We’ve got so many businesses that rely on e-commerce and they don’t have the speeds and capabilities they could have with a wired line,” Nicholls said. “We’re finally getting to the point where schools are wired with high-speed Internet, then kids go home from school and there’s no connectivity whatsoever. Can you imagine having to do a school report on dial-up?”

The Golden Bear Broadband proposal, initiated three years ago before fizzling out in March, encompassed more than a quarter of the state, and would have provided the anchor for expansion of modern Internet service up the Highway 1 corridor, from Bodega Bay to The Sea Ranch and Mendocino County, and to inland areas like Cazadero and Occidental. Those areas remain underserved by digital technology, officials say.

Carrillo, who called the failure of Golden Bear a “devastating blow” at the time, said the new initiative could provide data that would help push major Internet providers to roll out better service to rural areas. He and Supervisor Mike McGuire have lobbied to make broadband expansion a county and regional priority.

“We have been disappointed that some of the incumbent providers have not looked at the rural areas to close the digital divide,” Carrillo said. “One of the challenges is that we must work with the providers — whether it’s Verizon, AT&T, Comcast or Sonic, to continue to engage them and see if there might be public-private partnerships.”

Dean Bonner, a researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California, said increasingly, Californians are seeing affordable, accessible Internet as a service that should be considered and provided as a public utility, similar to electricity or water.

“When it comes to whether government is doing enough to improve access and availability to the Internet, the majority of people in California say not enough is being done,” said Bonner, who has conducted public polling on the issue for the past three years. “That’s a really strong finding.”

According to Bonner’s research, two-thirds of those polled viewed high-speed Internet as a public utility that everyone should be able to access, while 28 percent view it as a luxury that some people may be able to access. Furthermore, 67 percent of respondents said they’d support a government program funded by telecommunications providers to increase broadband access for lower-income and rural residents through subsidies.

“To me, that says there’s a willingness on behalf of the people to change the way we think about and provide broadband,” Bonner said.

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