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March 6, 2014
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Rural Nevada County questions delay in access to fiber optic broadband


For Bill Jacobson, the so-called “last mile” that separates his home from access to high-speed Internet service might as well be an ocean.

“Fiber optic lines are within 30 yards of my property,” said Jacobson, a home-based website developer in South County. “They were installed along Lime Kiln Road around 2006.”

Similarly, Keith Hagen, a Lime Kiln Road resident, said he was told by AT&T, the installer of the fiber optic cable network mentioned by Jacobson, that it was “a private line, owned by a corporation,” he said. Hagen, who currently uses what he said was slow and unreliable satellite service to reach the Internet, was told by AT&T that he cannot get high-speed Internet access — even though the cable is right near his street.

“If they can get fiber optic to us, it would be great,” he said.

Jacobson’s and Hagen’s complaints are nothing new. But they are becoming more vocal lately as a number of government, private and nonprofit groups try to fix what Jacobson calls “this incredulous lack of Internet access for rural residents.”

“For better or worse, our economic, educational, social and medical well-being continues to become more dependent on high speed Internet access,” Jacobson said.

Local experts, such as John Paul, co-founder of Spiral Internet, and Steve Monaghan, chief information officer for Nevada County, agree.

“The big telephone companies like AT&T are getting out of the DSL business,” Paul said, referring to copper wire hookups for the “last mile” of Internet access. “They’re not upgrading, they’re not expanding.”

According to Paul, “the future needs to be fiber optic.”

Spiral Internet has applied to the California Public Utilities Commission for 60-percent grant funding to build a $27 million fiber optic network in South Nevada County. Word on the grant is expected sometime this year.

Monaghan, who said he has been dealing with the problem of lack of Internet access in Nevada County for 14 years, said the fiber optic solution is hampered by the sparse population in rural areas.

“Low-density isolated clusters/pockets of homes that are often found on larger acreage lots don’t provide an economy of scale for larger ‘wireline’ providers to build their infrastructure (think AT&T, Comcast, Suddenlink),” Monaghan says on the county website.

Despite Paul’s and Monaghan’s statements, AT&T insists that it has not abandoned the fiber optic cable network it started some years ago in Nevada County, the one that Jacobson, Hagen and many others say AT&T has dropped the ball on for the “last mile.”

“AT&T does offer broadband access for rural communities in Nevada County,” said Alexandra Krasov, a San Francisco-based AT&T spokesperson. She said blanket statements about AT&T’s lack of commitment to Nevada County were “unfortunate” because the issue “has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

“If you could give me specific addresses, I could run them by our engineers,” she said.

“Any statements I make about our network would have to be approved by a number of people.”

Paul said that even if Nevada County residents and businesses could get the DSL “last mile” copper wire hookups from AT&T or other phone company providers, the Internet service would still be problematic.

“The download and upload speeds are not symmetrical,” he said.

“For example, you could have a download speed with DSL of six megabits per second, but your upload speed would only be 768 kilobits per second.”

One other “last mile” solution, fixed wireless Internet, appears to be gaining traction in western Nevada County. Fixed wireless uses antenna-like repeaters on hilltops to relay the Internet signal to homes and businesses in the valleys below.

“We have very good coverage in western Nevada County,” said SmarterBroadband CEO Adam Brodel.

“We definitely go where others can’t.”

Brodel said SmarterBroadband, in business since 2005, has “many transmission points” serving an area from five miles north of Nevada City down to Auburn and from Interstate 80 across to Penn Valley.

“We have 1,500 customers,” said Brodel, who is also working with the Sierra Economic Development Corporation to set up fixed wireless Internet access in some rural Nevada County communities.

Randy Wagner, SEDCorp’s CEO, said last month the consortium has already succeeded in setting up service in North San Juan through SmarterBroadband.

Monaghan said Nevada County’s topography can be a challenge for fixed wireless, which relies on “line of sight,” he said.

“Our diverse local topography places many homes in out-of-sight valleys, canyons or depressions,” Monaghan said.

“The dense forests of large trees effectively block direct line of sight to wireless towers as well.”

But Brodel said SmarterBroadband does have some special equipment to send a signal through foliage, although “we can’t go through hills.”

Wagner, whose group is one of 14 such consortias set up throughout California to address the Internet access issue, said part of his job is raising awareness and clout.

“I think communities willing to organize and approach AT&T and other large ISPs from a business and partnership perspective can get attention,” he said.

For Jacobson and others, however, they wonder when they will get the same “last mile” Internet service that most California urban dwellers take for granted.

“The same story is told over and over again in other areas of Nevada County,” he said.

“People ask, ‘We have fiber optic cable nearby. Why can’t we have access?’”

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.


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The Union Updated Mar 7, 2014 03:51PM Published Mar 7, 2014 09:34AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.