George Rebane: Nevada County, the black hole of broadband
Broadband connectivity to the internet is fundamental to the economic growth of every community in America. And it is doubly critical for the economic development, if not survival, of small rural communities off the beaten path like Nevada County.
However, that truth has yet to be embraced by our local governments.
In fact, there are many of us who adamantly oppose the availability of broadband in these foothills for the simple reason that they are opposed to everything that promotes growth in our county, be it in housing, new or expanding businesses, or anything that invites more working families to locate here.
When we arrived early in the millennium, I got involved in the nascent efforts to promote connectivity that would attract commerce and middle-class families into our county. For the last 30 or so years, Nevada County’s population has been stagnant. During this time we have seen improvement in some local cultural offerings and the arrival of more retirees (I am among them). But in the large we have also witnessed the departure of cash importing businesses and working families as their jobs moved elsewhere along the I-80 corridor, or even out of state.
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Nevada County is off the beaten path. We have slowly acknowledged the futility of manufacturing anything here that must then be sold elsewhere. Today the county’s main cash importers are tourists, retirees, and the remaining businesses which more and more focus their revenue producing activities around receiving and transmitting digital data. To make the point more strongly, the only cash-importing businesses that will seek a suitable home in our county are those that can import lots of bits over broadband conduits like fiber, then use locally available human labor to make those bits more valuable, and finally send those valuable bits into the outside world. And all of that requires broadband connectivity way beyond what is available today.
Nevada County shares this “broadband problem” with many other remote communities in the country. But due to our location in an acknowledged high-tech state, and our proximity to a major modern metropolitan area, our telecom shortcomings stand out like a sore thumb. Legal scholar and Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford has written Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution ― and Why America Might Miss It (2018) in which she documents the gathering telecommunications crisis in the United States. In there she describes a “world of fiber optic connections reaching neighborhoods, homes, and businesses (that) will represent as great a change from what came before as the advent of electricity. The virtually unlimited amounts of data we’ll be able to send and receive through fiber optic connections will enable a degree of virtual presence that will radically transform health care, education, urban administration and services, agriculture, retail sales, and offices. Yet all of those transformations will pale compared with the innovations and new industries that we can’t even imagine today.”
The problem she reveals is “how the giant corporations that control cable and internet access in the United States use their tremendous lobbying power to tilt the playing field against competition, holding back the infrastructure improvements necessary for the country to move forward. And … how a few cities and towns are fighting monopoly power to bring the next technological revolution to their communities.”
But to highlight her punchline of how some communities are failing the challenge to bring in broadband fiber, she cites Nevada County, California. That’s right dear people, we in these foothills are held up as a national poster child of how not to succeed in this critical aspect of promoting economic development and growth. We are the backward child in a competitive world, and we are in the most part doing it to ourselves.
As a longtime advocate of broadband fiber to our towns and neighborhoods, I have joined with fellow promoters of this technology who work through non-profit organizations and lobby local leaders to embrace bringing broadband to Nevada County. But over the years, our broadband walk has not matched our broadband talk. As professor Susan Crawford points out, our county has no political leaders willing to step up to champion this critically needed technology.
Today, as our national economy continues to grow, I plan to rededicate myself to encourage our political leaders to start making measurable progress on Nevada County’s road to the 21st century. And as your neighbor, I invite you to also make your own voice heard to our community leaders and elected representatives.
George Rebane lives in Nevada City.
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