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February 27, 2014
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High-speed Internet access in rural Nevada County depends on 'line of sight'


High-speed Internet access could become a reality in rural Nevada County if communities are able to locate residents on hilltops, ridgetops or mountaintops who are willing to serve as wireless signal repeater stations.

“The key is to have you talk to neighbors or friends who live in the higher elevations,” Randy Wagner of Sierra Economic Development Corporation told about 20 residents in the Peardale-Chicago Park area Wednesday night. “You are absolutely critical.”

Wagner was speaking at the fourth of five public meetings in Nevada County on setting up high-speed Internet access in unserved areas. The fifth meeting, for the Willow Valley community, will be 6 p.m. Thursday in the multipurpose room at Deer Creek Elementary School, 805 Lindley Ave., Nevada City.

“We’re going to figure out how to solve your problem,” Wagner told the group Wednesday. “It may not be the ultimate, but it will be better than what you have now.”

Most of the residents on Wednesday said they now use either dial-up or satellite service to access the Internet, but that neither were high-speed, neither could handle large files or were usable with video.

“Both dial-up and satellite are considered to be below minimum standards of the (California) Public Utilities Commission,” Wagner said. Customers of those services are considered “unserved” according to the PUC because of the slow speeds and limited services, Wagner said.

Sierra Economic Development Corporation, or SEDCorp, is one of 14 consortiums statewide funded by a tax included in telephone bills. The consortium is in the third year of a three-year contract with the PUC to help set up workable high-speed Internet access at unserved areas in five Sierra foothills counties, including Nevada County.

In Nevada County, SEDCorp is partnering with Smarter Broadband, a fixed wireless Internet provider based near Alta Sierra, south of Grass Valley. Unlike fiber optic cable — which must be installed underground and hooked up to each customer to allow them to connect to the Internet — fixed wireless depends on small “repeaters” installed on hilltops or ridgetops to relay the signal down to the neighbors in the adjacent valleys.

“Line of sight” is what the installers are looking for, Wagner said. If there are trees or rocks blocking the line of sight, it may not work.

Residents on the hilltops must agree to have the repeaters installed, usually with some type of benefit negotiated with the Internet provider — in this case, Smarter Broadband, Wagner said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, residents said that they were hilltop dwellers but a few said they know people who were. Wagner asked them to get in touch with the neighbors and have them contact him.

Steve Millard of Peardale said he has had several provider technicians out to his home, but most of them tell him that his property doesn’t have line of sight unless they would put an antenna on top of a tree.

“What if there’s wind blowing?” said Millard, who said he didn’t know if the fixed wireless Internet would work at his home. Millard, who uses a Verizon aircard for phone service, said that even that service was spotty at his property.

Adam Brodel of Smarter Broadband said his company has installed numerous repeaters in trees.

“The antennas have a wide base, so if the trees sway in the wind, they don’t fall,” he said.

Bridget Nahan of Peardale said her friends who have satellite service told her they are unable to get video access.

“Can we get Skype?” Nahan asked Wagner, referring to what might be available with the fixed wireless Internet service.

“Yes, absolutely,” he replied.

Wagner said his team has already succeeded in setting up the fixed wireless Internet service in North San Juan. North San Juan had its first informational session in October.

“We announced the good news Thursday night,” Wagner said. Wagner said he and his team try to get the fixed wireless system in place within three to four months of the first informational meeting.

Wagner noted that a local fiber optic cable company, Spiral Internet, is also working to set up a fiber optic cable network in Nevada County but that it won’t be available for about two to three years.

“So we’re giving you one solution right now, and later, you may have two choices,” Wagner told the group Wednesday.

Internet access is crucial, not only for residents, but for people running businesses in rural communities, Wagner said in an interview earlier Wednesday.

“From an economic development standpoint, if you want a business to grow and prosper, you have to be able to do business on the Internet,” he said.

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 503-477-4239.


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The Union Updated Feb 27, 2014 12:27PM Published Feb 27, 2014 10:33PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.