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February 17, 2014
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Gold Country Broadband Consortium to improve Internet for rural Nevada County

The Gold Country Broadband Consortium is looking to expand high-speed Internet access to underserved rural areas within Nevada County.

They’ve scheduled a series of meetings to focus on improving broadband infrastructure in North San Juan, Big Oak, Penn Valley, Lake of the Pines, Chicago Park, Peardale and Willow Valley.

North San Juan and the San Juan Ridge are only 15 miles from Nevada City, but that short distance can seem much farther, especially when it comes to services most take for granted.

Tullen Bach, general manager at Mother Truckers on Tyler-Foote Crossing Road, says he can see the lights from town at his home on the Ridge.

Bach knows that down the hill, they have high-speed Internet — but it’s not accessible for many of his neighbors.

“It’s really tough to get any kind of good Internet service,” Bach said. “We’re in a position where we share a T1 line with the fire department, and we find that a little frustrating because there’s a fiber-optic line 100 feet from the store.

“They went right past us when they put it in,” he added.

When that T1 line goes down, Mother Truckers has to depend on a dial-up connection — and that has a direct impact on sales.

“Processing credit card or debit card transactions becomes very difficult,” Bach said. “It’ll sometimes take as long as two minutes to run a single transaction. We have to rely on the patience of our customers in those circumstances, and it’s a lot to ask for sometimes.”

There are alternatives, but they can be expensive. And they may not meet the needs of businesses users.

Microwave systems require a clear line of sight to function properly. That’s not an option for some Web users in a mountainous, forested area like the Ridge.

Modern smartphones can be used as Wi-Fi hotspots, and there are also satellite Internet systems on the market. But Bach says these technologies are not satisfactory.

“The cell phone is too expensive, and the satellite is better than dial-up, but nothing like broadband. I hear it from all kinds of folks out here,” Bach said. “If they could get real broadband, they think they would be able to do better with their businesses.”

Extasia Designer Jewelry, another local business based on the Ridge, uses a satellite Internet connection provided by HughesNet. Despite having wireless broadband Internet access, there’s a lot of things the business can’t do.

Extasia’s business model requires them to upload large files on a regular basis. Stefanie Freydont,

Extasia’s founder, says she has to pay employees to do that work from home.

“We can’t actually maintain our website from our plant location because our speeds are too slow to upload,” Freydont said. “And we’re limited in how much we can upload at one time.”

Because Extasia is in the fashion industry, Freydont and her employees spend a lot of time researching trends. That would be faster, and less costly, with a better Internet connection.

“I spend a lot of time waiting for pictures to load,” she said. “It does cost me money out of pocket.”

Nevada County’s current broadband infrastructure puts rural businesses like Extasia at a competitive disadvantage against companies in metropolitan locations.

“Most providers just assume because we’re rural that we don’t need the type of full-speed access that urban centers do,” Freydont said. “I can understand it costs them a lot more to upgrade us out here, but without those upgrades, we’re really hamstrung as rural businesses.

“You can’t compete if you can’t communicate your ideas quickly,” Freydont added.

That’s the problem the broadband consortium is trying to address. They’re asking Web users to participate in a speed test that will document gaps in broadband coverage, and help make the case for investing in rural Nevada County’s infrastructure.

The test may indicate that some users are experiencing speeds that do not meet the California Public Utility Commission’s standard of 6 mbps for downloads and 1.5 mbps for uploads. The consortium said they’re also seeking neighborhood advocates to help spread the word about upcoming meetings.

The first one has been scheduled from 6-7 p.m. Wednesday at the Penn Valley Fire Department, 10513 Spenceville Road, and will focus on the areas around Big Oak and Penn Valley. The following evening, another meeting will take place from 6-7 p.m. at the North San Juan Fire Department, 10057 Reservoir St.

For a full list of meetings in Nevada County, visit the consortium’s website at http://goldcountryconsortium.wordpress.com/.

To contact staff writer Dave Brooksher, send emails to dbrooksher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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The Union Updated Feb 18, 2014 11:20AM Published Feb 19, 2014 02:46PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.