‘We need it now’: Nevada County leaders desire internet access for all; many want more state, federal help to get it
During the autumn PG&E power shutoffs, Dr. Roger Hicks figured the lights and heating of his medical clinic wouldn’t work, but he didn’t anticipate the same for his internet service.
The owner of Grass Valley’s Yubadocs Urgent Care was struggling to run his internet connection via Comcast, which was a problem because his clients’ medical records were stuck in the cloud, and their prescriptions, now more commonly sent electronically, were more challenging to get to a pharmacy.
Now, with the vast majority of the county shifting to digital as people stay at home to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus, Hicks finds himself in a bit of déjà vu as he and his clients often lack a strong, stable internet connection as they try to conduct telemedicine — which has become increasingly common across the county and the nation. While using Zoom from his home, Hicks said he frequently sees the words “internet connection is unstable” flash across his screen, frustrating him, his practice and his patients.
“Telemedicine has ramped up dramatically during COVID and all over the country,” said Hicks, adding that “Rural areas are where telemedicine is most needed.”
For more than a decade, leaders of local institutions around Nevada County, including the Board of Supervisors, have been pushing to get widespread access to broadband for its citizens.
After recently helping students in the more rural Twin Ridges Elementary School District acquire 91 hotspots and laptops, Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay said the current pandemic has placed a larger spotlight on the existing issue.
“We’re still seeing the disparity in the digital divide, in the equity,” he said, as students often need to pick up school packets from their respective sites or download homework from their school’s parking lot because they lack connectivity at home. “It’s brought this glaring issue front and center.”
The California Department of Education has also acknowledged the problem, with the state superintendent of public instruction creating a digital divide task force on April 16 in order to slow the yawning gap between those with a connection and those without.
Lacking the ability to confidently surf the web has been a longstanding issue, according to Sierra Commons Business Ignitor Executive Director Robert Trent, but during the pandemic it’s begun to impact each part of society: telework, telemedicine and teleschool.
“I’ve lived in the county for 20 years,” said Trent, “and this same issue hasn’t been tackled.”
Nevada County Economic Resource Council Executive Director Tim Corkins agreed, noting that living on Banner Mountain, Corkins himself can’t stream videos.
“We knew 12 years ago, (the tech sector) needed higher internet speed to work from here. None of that has changed,” he said. “We need it. We need it now.”
There are two projects underway in western Nevada County to bring stronger internet to some homes and businesses. The first is a $27 million Bright Fiber project, connecting 2,000 households in six zones along Highway 174, from Idaho Maryland to Chicago Park, to high-speed internet. The second is run by Nevada County Fiber Inc., using the county’s Last Mile Broadband program to bring underground fiber optics to about 25 homes and businesses to the Red Dog and Banner Quaker Hill Road areas.
These projects aside, residents have the choice of purchasing plans from 15 different providers, with varying levels of price and quality. Smarter Broadband services about 3,900 customers in Nevada and Placer counties, and offers residential packages for line-of-sight connection at $49 per month, according to a company spokesperson; SkyWest Broadband services areas around Lime Kiln and McCourtney roads, the area south Alta Sierra, Running M Drive and Lake of the Pines, charging residents $45 per month, according to its website.
But there’s a lack of transparency as to who exactly those providers serve, and, therefore, what kind of internet access residents have, according to Nevada County Chief Information Officer Steve Monaghan. That’s because those companies do not share their “exact service areas or number of customers with the county, nor do they have a legal obligation to do so,” Monaghan said in an email. Rough estimates from the county suggest that about 75% of the population has access to wireline provider services and over 90% can access some form of broadband.
Even so, county reports state the current situation falls short of its goals of meeting internet availability, affordability and adequacy so “all residents have access to health care, education, safety networks, an elevated quality of life and the opportunity to compete in a workforce of 21st century jobs,” according to the 2019 Nevada County Broadband Strategy report. The report acknowledges it will never reach its goals by exclusively relying on the goodwill of private enterprise to complete large-scale projects, as even the smaller ones have been met with issues.
“The reality is that incumbent telecom providers who have little incentive to connect low-density rural communities dominate these programs,” it states. “The experience with both programs has been one of delayed project timelines, litigation and frustration.”
This sentiment was augmented by a Sierra Business Council report, explaining that the internet is essentially an “unregulated utility” with little oversight or anti-trust laws to keep the industry competitive, preventing small companies to vie for customers in rural areas. As such, large-scale providers are “not incentivized to build in areas that have low housing density or low-income customers, as the rate of return in those areas on their infrastructure investment is low and competition from other providers does not push them into those relatively low-return markets,” the report reads. “It is for this reason that so many residents of the Sierra, and of the country at large, have only one service provider from which to choose. This, in turn, has resulted in high prices and slow speeds.”
Nevada County District 1 Supervisor Heidi Hall, who ran this year on internet access as part of her political campaign, said that while county projects are working to provide stable internet access for more residents, and that they will likely expand their reach to more residents, it’s a far cry from what is needed.
While she endorses federal legislation akin to that of the 1930s, which helped electrify rural areas via local cooperatives, Hall said she’s frustrated with the California Public Utilities Commission and state Legislature. She said the Legislature needs to loosen the process by which the commission distributes funding, allowing more local projects to take place.
“It’s clearly more imperative now,” she said. “We’re working from home, kids are doing their studies from home. We need a lot more here.”
Others, like Economic Resource Council Director of Community Outreach Gil Mathew believe that, due to the hefty cost of adding fiber internet to rural areas, larger government intervention is needed to subsidize the cost.
“There needs to be some bold action from the federal government,” he said. “It’s a tremendous amount of money required.”
Without it, the current situation stifles productivity and halts potential, Sierra Common’s Robert Trent said. The internet allows people to throw open the doors to what is possible — without a stable connection, he said, bigger ideas are truncated.
“It doesn’t allow people to think big,” he said. “If you have limitless internet, you can do limitless things with the internet.”
Like Dr. Roger Hicks, Trent, too, had Comcast during the fall power shutoffs and wasn’t able to access the internet. His best option, he said, was to connect a nearby fiber cable to Sierra Commons. But he said that solution has a cost: either $50,000 up front or $1,600 per month for three years.
Lessons from nearby
On the state level, there have been several pieces of legislation aimed at closing the digital divide, and federally there have been recent pushes from the Federal Communications Commission and House Democrats to make broadband accessible and affordable for all Americans, but nothing has yet come to fruition to provide rural Americans access to affordable, quality internet service.
Michael Anderson — a co-owner of Clientworks Inc., a former chief information officer of Bright Fiber Network and founder of the Northern Sierra Fiber Broadband Cooperative — has a different solution: a democratically owned and operated cooperative, similar to the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative.
“The answer is a democratized transport layer, with the wires and towers built and owned as a utility,” Anderson said in an email. “The three layers on top of that — the operations and maintenance, the connection to the internet, and all of the services — need to be open to the free market. This separation of layers is called open access.”
In America, the best example of this — according to Anderson, as well as county officials and the Sierra Business Council — comes from Ammon, Idaho, where residents own the fiber and different providers compete to service them.
This, Anderson suggests, should be the future of internet service in Nevada County.
“That’s how it’s done in much of the rest of the world,” he wrote, “which is why in the year 2000 America’s broadband was first in the world for speed and price, and, now, 20 years later, there are 20 countries ahead of us.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email email@example.com or call 530-477-4219.
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