Broadband for All on the Horizon: Fortuna Conference

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There is reason for hope that those with sluggish dialup will have high speed Internet in the not too distant future. On August 21, Mendocino County was well represented at a daylong Broadband Forum in Fortuna entitled “Rural Connections: From Grassroots to Treetops”. The Forum, organized by Connie Stewart, Senior Field Representative for Assemblywoman Patty Berg, brought together a wide range of people and companies involved in the effort to secure high speed Internet for rural residents in the four counties involved in the Redwood Coast Connect (RCC) project. Mendocino County CEO Tom Mitchell, Superintendent of the County Office of Education Paul Tichinin, Mitch Sprague of MCN, and five members of the Mendocino Coast Broadband Alliance (MCBA) attended along with local providers, including Mike Ireton of Willits Online. The MCBA was represented by Hilarie Coate, Shirley Freriks, Bill Knapp, Rod Lorimer, and Jim Moorehead.

CEO Mitchell said the Supervisors are supportive of the community’s needs and want to move forward to realize deployment of broadband infrastructure for the unserved and underserved areas of the County. He said the County goal is to give the residences broadband in 2-4 years and outlined his next steps: Begin with the end in mind. Cultivate end user participation and create a strong social fabric to tie our communities together with Community Collaboration Groups that can speak for the “grassroots” in dialogue with the “treetop” agencies. Encourage local government agencies to work together. Affect change at the State and Federal levels in order to make the deployment more doable. Convene a Mendocino Broadband Forum late 2008 or early 2009 to bring together a broad spectrum of community partners in collaboration and communication to make it happen.

In 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed two people from Berg’s region to serve on his California Broadband Task Force, which was directed to identify and remove barriers to universal broadband access for rural California. As a condition of approving the mergers of the major telecom companies, the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) was created to assist unserved and underserved rural communities to achieve broadband access with a specific interest in telemedicine applications. The Redwood Coast Connect project was CETF’s first grant. RCC has been working for a year to gather supply and demand data to validate the low supply relative to the strong demand for high speed Internet.

At this Forum, RCC presented a series of maps that show the current broadband coverage and the backhaul capacity. The lack of “last mile” broadband deployment and the high cost of backhaul are the greatest barriers to connection of the Coast since there is no existing infrastructure in many areas off main roads. In Mendocino County, about 90% of the people who responded to the RCC survey late 2007 own computers but only 21% have broadband. Most want high speed Internet but it is not available where they live. More information and maps are available at http://redwoodcoastconnect.humboldt.edu/

Additional barriers to broadband deployment are government policies, permitting concerns, and right of way issues. A panel of speakers from State Parks, Caltrans, Coastal Commission, and Department of Fish and Game gave background on their concerns and offered suggestions to streamline the process for permits. An important question was “Where are the necessary subsidies, investments, and other funding sources?” Mendocino County has the opportunity to get some of the $100 million being awarded late October by the California Advanced Services Fund to currently unidentified companies that have applied to put broadband infrastructure into Albion, Comptche, Elk, Hopland, Little River, Mendocino, and Ukiah among others in the County.

Next steps were identified to achieve the goal: Lobbying local, state and Federal government officials for assistance is essential. Education and awareness are necessary to help residents know how and why this technology is critical to our individual and community future. MCBA will hold two public meetings on September 18 in Fort Bragg and September 21 in Mendocino to answer questions and offer information about the Broadband effort plus opportunities to lobby.

One sentiment in the room was that access to high speed Internet is a “civil right” for all. Another participant said that the government has a “social obligation” to provide it so all citizens can participate in the 21st Century. Happily, Mendocino County officials are stepping up to begin building a community collaboration process to encourage development of a wide array of creative solutions to broadband deployment.

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