On rural North Coast, fast Internet hard to come by
By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
While high-speed Internet service is taken for granted in most cities, the piercing, scratchy sound of dial-up modems can still be heard in many small communities scattered across the North Coast.
“I have a lot of friends who live in rural areas and dial-up is the only option for many,” said Joel Martin, the owner of Jenner By the Sea Gifts on Highway 1.
When his Apple desktop requires security updates to be downloaded, Martin disconnects the computer, puts it in his car and drives home to Forestville. He then downloads the updates over his DSL line.
Martin is not alone. A new report by the Federal Communications Commission found many rural communities on the North Coast lack broadband connectivity.
In Sonoma County, 8,277 residents do not have access to high-speed Internet service, primarily along the coast, Sonoma Valley and the northern region. In Mendocino County, a third of its nearly 90,000 residents lack access to broadband service. Perhaps surprisingly, residents in rural Lake County have the easiest access to broadband service.
With so much of our lives conducted over the Internet and mobile networks, high-speed broadband has become an essential part of everyday life. Whether it’s online education or banking, filling out government forms or streaming music or movies, a slow Internet connection can be debilitating.
While dial-up was adequate to view most of the Web a decade ago, today’s Internet activity requires ever-increasing amounts of bandwidth. The government has made universal broadband a priority, saying it is essential to innovation, jobs and global competitiveness.
In Sonoma and Mendocino counties, a plan is in the works to construct a fiber-optic ring that would bring rural parts of the North Coast into the 21st century.
For now, many who live along the coast north of San Francisco are forced to endure websites that load at a snail’s pace.
The FCC’s Broadband Progress Report defines broadband “benchmark speeds” as a download speed of 4 megabits per second and an upload speed of 1 megabit per second.
Most of the California coast, with the exception of urban centers around San Francisco and Los Angeles, continues to be left out of the high-speed Internet age. In Mendocino County, only 40 percent of households have access to cable broadband and only 11 percent can get a DSL connection.
In contrast, the report found that only 174 of Lake County’s 64,671 residents and 84 of Napa County’s 137,746 residents did not have access to broadband last year. Not surprisingly, San Francisco reigns supreme with total broadband coverage available to anyone who can pay for it.
Internet advocates say the coast has long been neglected by traditional telecommunications companies, but smaller or nontraditional Internet providers are trying to fill in the gaps.
Lena Chyle, a longtime Jenner resident who works as a volunteer at the local visitor center, recently switched over to satellite Internet service provided by ViaSat. The service, called Excede, offers speeds of up to 12 megabits per second, said Chyle. Though not as fast as high-speed cable, it’s much faster than the 1- to 1.5-megabits per second download speed she was getting with her previous satellite-based Internet service.
“It’s heavenly. I can’t believe it,” she said. When Chyle fires up her computer and opens an Internet browser, “it actually brings up a site.”
But telecommunications experts agree that future Internet consumption will require far faster speeds of 50 to 100 megabits per second or more.
The gaps in broadband access in Sonoma County mirror national trends, where 19 million people in mostly rural areas still lack such service, the FCC report said.
Even so, the report found that progress has been made following billions of dollars of investments by telecommunications companies to expand broadband services across the country.
A grassroots consortium in Sonoma and Mendocino counties that includes high-speed Internet advocates, county officials and economic development experts is crafting a proposal to build a 122-mile, 72-strand fiber-optic ring that would connect the North Coast to the telecommunications backbone along Highway 101. The ring would run west from Petaluma to Bodega Bay, north to Fort Bragg and east to Willits.
The plan is being championed in Sonoma County by Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire, whose districts are most affected by broadband and mobile network dead zones.
The Sonoma/Mendocino fiber-optic ring would be part of a network of similar telecommunications rings that together would run 2,500 miles across 16 counties in Northern California. The network is spearheaded by Golden Bear Broadband LLC, a group made up mostly of telecommunications companies.
Golden Bear Broadband is seeking $108 million from the state Public Utilities Commission. The matching grant would require Golden Bear to raise $12 million, or 10 percent of the estimated $120 million project cost.
The larger grant would cover the cost of building out the Sonoma/Mendocino fiber-optic ring, but the local consortium is expected to submit its own grant proposal in case the CPUC rejects the larger proposal.
Mike Nicholls, a local Internet advocate who heads the Sonoma arm of the Sonoma/Marin consortium, said the lack of high-speed Internet and mobile telephone service has been ignored for too long.
“There’s nothing in Jenner, nothing along the coast from Jenner to Sea Ranch,” Nicholls said. “We’re dealing with first-responder issues if we have, God forbid, an accident out there.”
Nicholls said the fiber-optic cable would be strung along existing telephone poles. Internet service providers could directly hook up to the ring and deliver their service via wireless towers. Direct hookups to homes would be difficult and costly due to the remote terrain along the coast, he said.
While broadband service is spotty along the coast, travel east from Mendocino County and access to high-speed Internet service suddenly becomes ubiquitous.
In Lake County, the FCC found that only about 0.25 percent of the county’s population lacked access to high-speed broadband, the result of investments made by Mediacom Communications.
In February, the national cable provider announced that it was offering several Lake County communities a broadband package called Ultra 50, which is capable of download speeds of up to 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 5 megabits per second.
For Lake County, state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure is critical to economic growth, said Tom Larsen, Mediacom’s vice president of legal affairs and government relations.
“Communities want faster speeds because that’s what attracts businesses,” Larsen said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or email@example.com.