Heidi Hall: Federal, state support needed for rural broadband in areas like Nevada County
If there is one single thing Nevada County and other rural areas can point to as an impediment to a more vibrant economy, it is the lack of affordable, accessible internet.
Bringing broadband into our homes and downtown was a key priority for me when I joined the Nevada County Board of Supervisors in 2017, and since then you have heard our board talk about the problem and take action in a robust way.
Nevertheless, while we are taking innovative actions as a county in order to get to a solution, action at the state and federal levels is still badly needed. Advocacy from all your elected officials, and from citizens alike continues to be necessary. Nothing energetic happens without advocacy. Here is where we are today:
On July 23, our Board approved a $25,000 contract with Sierra Business Council to “develop, solicit, facilitate and administer a $225,000 Nevada County Last Mile Broadband Grant Pilot-Program.” The purpose of the grant is to spur broadband expansion in rural areas of the county where development is not occurring by Internet Service Providers. This is an innovative and forward-thinking action that re-energizes the quiet work the County has been doing for a number of years.
Broadband was first identified as an important economic driver in early 2000 when the Nevada County Economic Resource Council began looking at the issue with the establishment of the Broadband Leadership Council. In 2007, the state stepped in through the Public Utilities Commission creating the California Advanced Series Fund to provide grants to bridge the “digital divide” in underserved and unserved areas throughout the state. While this work has been slow and incremental, in 2009 the Board adopted Resolution 09-106 formally outlining its support to promote local broadband expansion, access and usage throughout the County.
Several years later, in 2012, the County provided support to the Gold Country Broadband Consortium funded through the CASF Program, to promote the development and expansion of broadband throughout the unserved and underserved areas of the counties of Nevada, Placer, Sierra, El Dorado and parts of Alpine County. In 2015, our community received three American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants. The most notable is the Central Valley Next Generation Broadband Infrastructure Project, which built a fiber optic network across 18 California counties and connected our two local high schools and main library with 10 and 1 Gigabyte Internet broadband connections. Again, while the work was underfunded and incremental, it was a start. Today, the consortium is still active and continues to serve a vital role in identifying our local challenges and advocating for our community’s unmet need.
All of this bore fruit this past year when the CASF Program approved over $16 million in grants and loans to Bright Fiber Network, Inc. for the development of broadband infrastructure in southeast Nevada County thanks to the work of local entrepreneurs. After several years of struggling to obtain 40% match funding for the project, Bright Fiber Network sold to Race Telecommunications, Inc. to take over the grant. A major change to the project included pivoting from a primarily underground deployment to a 75% aerial installation.
Last year, to support and encourage the project, the Board adopted a joint resolution with the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City (Resolution 18-324) supporting and promoting local broadband expansion, access and usage in Nevada County. Ultimately, the CPUC approved the transfer of the project to Race Telecommunications, Inc. on Jan. 10. I attended this meeting with the Nevada County Executive Officer, Nevada County Chief Information Officer, the SBC and others to advocate during the public comment portion of that meeting, and the project is moving forward.
However, this picture is incomplete and much of Nevada County remains underserved. The reasons are not complicated — a market-driven solution will not work as it does not pencil out for big providers to expand service in rural areas like ours, even though ratepayers have paid into funds to do this work for years. At the same time, these large companies have blocked access by smaller companies, in order to maintain their market share for other reasons. In addition, the development of “Last-Mile transmission networks,” the part that connects existing service to our homes, is the most expensive part of the project. This simply won’t get done without some financial help from the state and federal government, revived regulations that require larger companies to provide a better standard of service and reduce their ability to block smaller entrepreneurs.
My work with state, federal, and political organizations state-wide is focused on this issue, and others like it that are unique but endemic to rural areas.
At the County we are doing our small part to implement the Last-Mile Broadband Grant Pilot-Program. This way, we can at least maintain some control over identifying where we would like to see broadband infrastructure developed, instead of being at the mercy of uninterested major providers. We will also support the embattled small businesses by providing good data to determine their growth, looking at the strategic and largest economic impact to our county. The guidelines for the program are currently being developed and will be released shortly.
We need your continued support and advocacy for action at both the local level, as well as at the state and federal levels, to ensure that our rural areas do not continue to suffer under an unnecessary urban-rural divide.
Heidi Hall is a member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, representing District 1.
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