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Rural residents rally for better Internet access

Disparity in speed impacts other areas of community
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Residents without broadband Internet in the Auburn-area are taking action, along with a local non-profit organization, to see every household within four and a half counties have access to high speed Internet within three years. The residents attended the Sierra Economic Development Corporation?s Gold Country Broadband Consortium Thursday afternoon. Representatives from Internet service providers, including Smarter Broadband, Plumas Sierra, Digital 395 and AT&T, shared about some of their efforts to bring broadband to rural areas throughout California. Brent Smith, CEO of SEDCorp, said while the goal the organization is undertaking is ambitious, ensuring every household in Placer, Nevada, Sierra, El Dorado and Alpine counties has the option of accessing high-speed Internet that meets the state standard of 60 megabytes down and 1.5 megabytes up is one way the economic playing field can be leveled. ?I don?t know of a lot of folks in our four and half county area that have that level of service,? Smith said. ?It is our goal to make this as affordable to everyone as possible and affordability is driven by competition, therefore, we are going to promote competition.? With an increasing amount of services being offered online, from life-saving medical monitoring in real-time to access to supplemental educational videos, the gap is widening between those who have high-speed internet access and those who don?t. Some rural residents say they are underserved with slow and expensive Internet service, while others say their area is hurt economically by a lack of high-speed Internet connection. Jim Leidigh, of Auburn and head of the telecommunications committee for the Auburn Valley Property Owners Association said he would like to see faster service in his area. He said there are 120 homes in his association that are underserved when it comes to internet. That could mean their Internet is slow or they are still on dial-up. He conducted a survey of all of the residents, many who complained predominately about Internet access issues. He said he pays $60 per month for Internet speed that is too slow to watch a news clip without it experiencing a glitch. ?A lot of people there are not retired and live in Auburn Valley and want to work at home and can?t and that is very difficult,? Leidigh said. ?We are what is called underserved. We have it, but it?s not fast.? For Leidigh, who moved to Auburn from the Bay Area, it is a major con to living in the area. ?In the Bay Area we would pay less and get better service,? Leidigh said. His community will be the first to hold a community meeting in conjunction with SEDCorp to get the ball rolling for other companies to potentially come in and serve them. The meeting will take place on July 14 for residents who are members of the property association. Part of the consortium?s goal is to create a map of the bright line, the boundary between where there is service and where there isn?t. They have been plotting points on the map as residents have reported their own home?s information. In addition to identifying areas of need, the Sierra Economic Development Corporation is getting commitments from residents who say they will sign up for the service if it is offered and attempting to find Internet service providers for the rural areas. To supplement the cost, it is offering small business loans and connecting service providers with financial partners. Cathy Sarmento, who is on the board for the Divide Chamber of Commerce, said high-speed Internet is a luxury not afforded to many homes on the divide, including Cool, Georgetown and Pilot Hill. As a Realtor, Sarmento said this has made it harder for her to do business in the past and is a deterrent for people looking at homes in the area. Other businesses aren?t able to complete ordering online and can?t read maps posted on El Dorado County?s website. Because of the limited school bus service in rural areas, many children can?t stay after school to use the Internet on-campus, either. Her goal is to attract more Internet service providers to the area. She said the consortium, though still in early phases, has been helpful in doing that. ?Just to let them know that there are people out there that would willingly ban together to get service,? Sarmento said. ?Just getting educated about what the options are.? Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News. ______________________________________________________ What?s the California Telehealth Network? ? A statewide broadband partnership for telehealth dedicated to healthcare. ? One of its goals is to expand access to use broadband technology to expand access to the best quality healthcare services with a focus on rural and medically underserved areas in California. ? Gives healthcare professionals the technological capability and training to monitor patients status in real-time remotely, provide consultation via the internet, enroll in social services programs online and access health information. ? It has a separate broadband network, so that it is not impacted by the public Internet, especially during times of emergency. How is it funded? ?The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Rural Health Pilot Project will provide California with up to $22.1 million over three years to install broadband infrastructure and connections and to provide subsidized rates to Pilot Project Sites. This grant was awarded in November 2007. An additional grant, the Broadband Opportunities & Training Program (BTOP) will provide $9 million in funding for telehealth equipment and training. ? Other organizations: The California Emerging Technology Fund, UnitedHealth/PacifiCare, The California Health Care Foundation, the National Coalition for Health Integration and the University of California. Source: Eric Brown, President and CEO, California Telehealth Network