SEDCorp launches regional broadband initiative

Goal is to increase high speed Internet access in rural areas
By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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At the Sierra Economic Development Corporation in Auburn, CEO Brent Smith is on a mission. He’d like to see broadband available to every household in his four-and-a-half county area within three years. SEDCorp recently received a $150,000 grant to launch the Gold Country Broadband Consortium, a public-private partnership to increase digital access and use in Placer, Nevada, El Dorado, Sierra and eastern Alpine counties. according to a press release. “The total population in that four-and-a-half county area is more than 600,000 and (three years ago) about one-third did not have (broadband service),” Smith said. “Since then, wireless 3G and 4G have come online and that’s made some difference. Additionally, some of the Internet service providers, some with our help, have expanded service in those areas.” Still, many rural areas do not have access. “It’s because of the terrain,” he said. “We have steep hillsides, deep valleys and lots of trees. It makes it difficult to get broadband to them.” Another challenge is population density. Often residences in rural areas are scattered. “The big providers — AT&T, Verizon and even cable companies — don’t find it cost effective to deliver to those areas. But those people still need and deserve broadband service,” Smith said. The service must also meet the recently increased standard, which has gone from 1Mbps per second three years ago to 6Mbps. “As part of the consortia, we thought the standard should be even higher,” he said. “We wanted to see 10Mbps. Interestingly, the Internet service providers themselves wanted a lower bar.” The consortium, one of 14 throughout the state funded by the California Advanced Services Fund Rural and Urban Regional Broadband Consortia grant program, is taking the project directly to rural communities, meeting with residents, businesses and Internet service providers and getting their input. “We’re going to go further than before by asking folks who attend these meetings to give contact information — phone and address — as an expression of their commitment that if (Internet providers) bring in the service, they’ll subscribe to it,” Smith said. “It is an important financial transaction. If a lot of work and expense is made to get it to you, then you have to commit to sign up for it.” SEDcorp also has a major role as a funding source. “If (the ISPs) have a project and need money to buy equipment to expand their capability, we’ll provide the capital via loans we make so they can purchase the equipment, get it installed and get locals signed up,” he said. “Then, out of the subscriber rates paid, they can pay off our loan. It’s a model that works and we want to do it more and more.” For larger amounts of money, the state has loan programs and grants that can be tapped for broadband expansion, he said. Another important part of the effort is mapping. “The state of California and the nation are working on mapping where broadband service is available,” he said. “We’re going to do our part. … Every time we get together, if it is a full consortium, we’re going to update the maps. If they’ve got service, put a dot on the map so we can draw the “bright line.” If you are inside it, you have the service at the required speed. If not, you don’t. Our goal is to expand the bright line until it covers all four and a half counties.” Catalyst for business development So far, about 200 people have expressed interest in being part of the endeavor. One of those is Jason Buckingham, director of the Golden Sierra Workforce Investment Board . “Frankly, broadband in rural areas is a key to economic development,” he said. “… These days people are telecommuting and there’s more access globally to employment than there ever has been. If you look at e-commerce, (more and more) people are starting e-commerce sites and if you look at companies like Cisco and Oracle, more people are working from home globally and you can’t do that on dial-up.” Placer County Economic Development Director David Snyder said there are pockets of underserved areas in Placer County still that are looking for higher speeds and better service. “Part of the reason for this meeting is to more specifically identify those areas,” he said. “…. In the old days, companies were looking for adequate labor, sewer, water and electricity. The new infrastructure is high-speed communication services. It is really essential today because businesses have rapidly growing data needs. It’s definitely an important factor when you are factoring businesses development. Businesses are looking for that state-of-the-art service.” The public is welcome to attend the consortium’s first meeting, set for March 29, which will focus on planning the community sessions. ------------ Gold?Country Broadband Consortium meeting When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, March 29 Where: Veterans Memorial Hall, 100 East St., Auburn Admission: Free ($2 charge for lunch) Reservations: (530) 823-4703