“I got sick to death of this five years ago. We live in the state that invented what the Internet is all about — Google, Apple, Cisco. Yet here we sit,” says Jim Moorehead, chair of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County.
The “this” that Moorehead is referring to is the frustrating lack of stable, high-speed Internet connectivity throughout vast swaths of Mendocino County. The problem could be addressed by the installation of a broadband network, allowing rural residents to ditch their dial-up for reliable, high-speed Internet access, rightfully moving the county into the digital age. That is the goal of the Broadband Alliance, a group of tech-savvy, stalwart volunteers who organized in 2010 and have been meeting weekly in the hopes of establishing robust, countywide connectivity.
Back in the 90s, dial-up satisfied the needs of nearly everyone who used the net. Today, those list-serve years are already the Internet’s ‘good old’ days. “My wife and I bought our home in 1994. We weren’t thinking about broadband because I hadn't even heard the term,” Moorehead explains. “We owned an Inn until 2001. As the Internet became a more important part of our lives, we’d handle larger files at the Inn and used dial-up at home,” he explains.
By the new Millennium, cyberspace and MySpace were becoming part of the cultural vernacular. For millions, and almost overnight, access to the Internet had become a non-negotiable necessity of life. Jim Moorehead found he needed connectivity solutions. “We got satellite in 2003 and got a second phone line so we could dedicate one line to the Internet,” he continues. This was a costly enterprise and did not solve his access problems.
In 2007, Moorehead stumbled upon a radio program featuring a member of Redwood Coast Connect, a Humboldt County-based pilot project comprised of community members, local governments, and telecommunications providers. RCC helps to create planning processes for a four-county region, with the goal of “ubiquitous broadband” the entire rural area. “I called and asked how I could get involved,” said Moorehead.
Shirley Freriks had started a broadband group in Albion. Moorehead joined that group, and a non-profit organization was formed in anticipation of going after ARRA Stimulus funding for broadband. “We got a project designed called Fiber to the Home, from Mendocino down to Albion. We had an engineering firm willing to do the work pro-bono, but capital and economic costs made the project unworkable,” he explains.
Despite the setback, Moorehead continued undaunted — now bitten by the broadband bug. Community telecommunications groups were forming across the country, and Moorehead utilized his low bandwidth to consult with the best of the lot. He spoke with members of the East Central Vermont Fiber Network- a joint venture of 23 Vermont towns seeking to build and operate a municipally owned, universal, open access, fiber-optic telecommunications network.
“They told us our economic and political footprint was too small,” Moorehead explained. “The costs of operating a network involve economies of scale. We became very disillusioned. We had high expectations- build this network and live happily ever after.”
Moorehead spent six months thinking about the situation and decided to work on political issues before taking on the technical challenges. “That meant engaging the Board of Supes, the CEO’s office and building alliances with Chambers of Commerce, Farm Bureaus and healthcare providers,” he explains.
At the same time, Moorehead, who serves on the Mendocino Community Foundation Board of Directors had an “aha” experience. “At our 2010 annual retreat, Foundation members discussed the fact that our assets had increased. We were mature enough to take on our next challenges — matching donors with philanthropic interests to needy causes, and getting involved with community leadership issues,” he notes.
The board spent their retreat identifying the most important issues facing Mendocino County. Six major issues were whittled down to three: cannabis, water and broadband. “The first two topics had too many winners and losers,” said Moorehead. Broadband became the Community Foundation’s issue- primarily for its importance in economic development. “We needed to do something quantifiable. What’s needed in the county? Jobs,” says Moorehead. And the lack of connectivity was clearly having an economic impact. Potential businesses consider moving to the county, but balk due to the lack of sufficient Internet connectivity.
So we had this grand idea — now what?” Moorehead recalls. Jim Mayfield had an idea. “Jim said, ‘I know where we need to go with this. The coastal broadband group and the community foundation should go to EDFC to form a collaborative partnership to start working on broadband.’ And that’s what happened next,” says Moorehead.
Two catalysts propelled the group into rapid activity. The first was the loss of Esplanade, the south-coast “WISP” (Wireless Internet Service Provider). The impacts were immediate and costly to hundreds of individuals and businesses that were former Esplanade customers. “Supervisor Hamburg invited Greg Jirak to make a presentation to the Board of Supervisors,” says Moorehead.
Based on the presentation, the Supervisors drafted a resolution underscoring the importance of the Alliance. “It’s a meaningful document because we now had the stamp of legitimacy, media attention and the support of the Supervisors. That was about nine months ago,” Moorehead continues.
What is singular about the Mendocino County Broadband Alliance is the fact that the group, save for one secretary, is comprised entirely of volunteers. The group didn’t realize their uniqueness until they attended a meeting at the California Emerging Technology Fund, or CETF- the non-profit set up by Governor Schwarzenegger to push broadband deployment in the state.
CETF was established pursuant to requirements from the California Public Utilities Commission as part of the mergers of SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI, and is tasked with contributing $60 million over five years to advance broadband — money that could be coming to Mendocino County.
“Last December we attended a CETF workshop for broadband consortiums,” Moorehead explains. The meeting was held in a hotel, around a horseshoe-shaped table with the VIPs at one end. “At the opposite end was a screen for video projection, and about 100 attendees in the audience.” The attendees were comprised of local phone company reps, county economic development directors, government officials, non-profit administrators and educators.
The CETF’s board, appointed using strict CPUC guidelines, reads like a who’s who list of telecommunications A-Listers: Michael Peavey, CPUC Chair, Jeff Campbell , Cisco Systems Director of Technology, Trade Policy, Global Policy and Government Affairs, Leslie Miller , Google Public Policy Manager, Darrell J. Stewart , Intel’s Public Sector Manager.
“Sunne McPeak, CETF’s president asked everyone to introduce themselves. When I got up and introduced myself and indicated there were about 40 of us volunteers working on the project, there was a palpable gasp in the room,” Moorehead smiles.
After Esplanade’s demise, a second catalyst spurred the group forward.
“Susanne Norgard, director of the Community Foundation announced a community Foundation Broadband Challenge Grant. An anonymous donor put up a $40,000 match,” says Moorehead. “When we make the $40,000 in matching funds we’ll have $80,000 in walk-around money for publicity, to pay our single staff person, to hire a consultant if necessary.” The Alliance has received $15,000 from PG&E, $2,500 from North Bay Association of Realtors from Inland Mendocino County and $250 from the Friends of Coast Community Library in Point Arena. “We’re getting close to halfway. Howard Egan, Conrad Cox, Susanne Norgard and John Goldsmith are working on fundraising efforts,” Moorehead explains.
The Alliance had what Moorehead calls “a gestation period” from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2011. “We were a new organization. We did some visioning, created goals and learned to work together. We’ve completed most of the textbook organizational aspects. I’ve never been involved with such a cohesive group,” he notes.
When Moorehead took over as chair, the group began meeting every Friday. The meetings are a blend of committee reports and planning sessions, with different members spearheading the incredibly complex tasks before them.
The group is doing everything from boots-on-the-ground legwork up and down the county to keeping tabs on the PUC and the ever-shifting sands of the telecommunications industry, where non-regulation has created significant crosstalk between what the public requires and what providers elect to provide.
“Because of deregulation, the very small number of cable providers has the ability to increase customer fees. These same providers must spend astronomical amounts of money to provide the infrastructure to places like Mendocino County- not exactly a high-dollar area for an industry whose bottom line is based on subscriber numbers,” says the Alliance’s technology chair Brian Churm.
Even the simplest examination of these issues propels the curious into an Alice-like wormhole of technical terminology which must be understood in order to grasp the immensity of connectivity problems faced by countries, and by default, rural counties like Mendocino. Terms like “backbones,” “middle mile,” “fiber to the curb” and “competitive local exchange carriers” pepper the reports and meeting of Alliance members.
The group has spent time and money identifying three possible locations for increased service that might pique the interest of a broadband provider. Each has unique, and in the case of a Potter Valley connectivity investigation, challenging problems. These represent the first of three projects of various sizes.
The Rancho Navarro subdivision has been identified as a potential project location. “A presentation was made to the Rancho Navarro Homeowners Association Board,” Moorehead explains. Mary Anne Payne, director of the Botanical Gardens and resident Margaret Bond are the on-the-ground contacts for this project. “If there’s fiber available, ATT or a Competitive Local Exchange Carrier, or CLEC could go in there and send ADSL through the copper lines to the residents,” says Moorehead. ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscribers Line, which is essentially an enhanced DSL service.
Board members identified the presence of a fiber-equipped remote terminal near the subdivision. These metal boxes, located throughout the county are like the digital end of the line- the equivalent of where a maintained road turns into a dirt track.
Even identifying the location and cursorily determining the condition of the remote terminals in the county has become the responsibility of the Alliance.
“When phones were deployed at the turn of the century, two wires from every phone went to a central office, creating massive amounts of copper,” explains Brian Churm. Photos from the period display buildings with a tent of wire above them, which rapidly became unmanageable. “Higher capacity wires were created and installed at key locations, which allowed copper wires to come to a concentration point. You would see four pairs of wires instead of 500,” he continues.
This was the birth of remote terminals — large power boxes often mounted on concrete slabs. “They are important because they act as a central office. If someone offers broadband, they bring it to a remote terminal. That’s what ATT would upgrade to bring broadband to a subdivision,” Churm continues. ATT stipulates their customers cannot be located more than 11,000 feet from a central office. CLEC’s, such as Willits Online may have more leeway in their distance restrictions.
“The interesting thing is to find out whether a box is fiber-equipped or not. If they are, you can deploy DSL services,” says Churm. “If you have an unserved community and the devices are in the area, that’s a candidate for opportunity. You don’t know what you have until you open up the box. In the Sherwood area, a ‘dinosaur box’ was discovered, but the infrastructure of the box was not maintained and is virtually useless,” Churm continues.
The responsibility for bringing the copper, the fiber or whatever components are used to bring broadband to what is called “the last mile” is the portion of the connectivity effort that is generally addressed locally. The ‘middle mile’ is generally installed by one of the big players like Comcast. The job of the Broadband Alliance is to find funding and a local company willing to take on the job to wire the last mile.
“With regard to Rancho Navarro, my very rough calculations using Google Maps is that all the properties are within 20,000 feet of the remote terminal. If a CLEC didn’t have the corporate restriction that ATT has, the whole community could be served,” says Moorehead. “We had this theory there was fiber to a remote terminal at Rancho Navarro. We are getting close to sending out a letter to vendor contacts,” he notes.
The letter, called a Notice of Opportunity, will be sent to about 15 possible vendors. “Basically we’re telling them we’ve identified a rural broadband project they might be interested in. We include the details- maps, photos, parcel locations, the location on the CPUC website where the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) makes CPUC moneys available for these projects. CASF scores the applications and makes recommendations to the PUC. We’re hoping Rancho Navarro will be a template. It appears this underserved neighborhood would qualify for funding,” says Moorehead. This is important because the PUC has recently increased the amount of subsidies for unserved regions, based upon the up-and-download speeds for a particular area. “For a vendor to come in and look at unserved Rancho Navarro, the subsidy went from 40 to 70%,” he notes.
The next project on the docket is a Highway One Corridor Project. “This one is a big deal. The conceptual thinking on this, and there’s no design yet, is to run a fiber backbone from Fort Bragg to Gualala, south to Bodega Bay and inland to Petaluma. A preferred addition to that would be going northwards to Westport and across the Branscomb Road to Laytonville,” Moorehead explains. The project is divided into two sections because of the immense population drop north of Fort Bragg. “What would make this fly is the link from Laytonville to Petaluma, which provides the Internet with redundancy if the fiber optic cable on Highway 101 gets damaged. Redundancy is very important in telecommunications,” says Moorehead. A vendor has expressed interest in this project, the cost of which Moorehead states would be in the millions.
The third project, located in Potter Valley Project cost several thousand dollars, and the results do not look promising. “We discovered no fiber is available to Potter Valley,” says Brian Churm. “Four strands were originally run by ATT. One runs the phone service. The other runs the cell tower and the school district. There is no fiber into Potter.”
The cost to install fiber is extremely prohibitive. Some feel the almost purposeful installation of such a small cable is tantamount to a monopoly. “The only solution is for someone to do an overbuild, which is cost-prohibitive. It’s quite possible that this is what we’ll see in other parts of the county,” Churm notes.
Yet other communities have managed to have small successes. “In Comptche, Randy McDonald was instrumental in getting DSL using ATT. The total cost was $48,000, of which the PUC paid 40 percent. Some of these projects aren’t that expensive,” Moorehead continues.
“Anchor institutions” like hospitals or schools sometimes bring in broadband for their uses. This can provide benefits or roadblocks to nearby communities seeking broadband. “In Potter Valley, MCOE has solved their problem by having broadband but it doesn’t help the residents. ATT has fiber optic to Parlin Fork and Chamberlain Creek Conservation Camps. But a friend of mine who lives near the camps is still stuck on dialup. His problem has become more complicated,” says Moorehead.
The question of whether wineries could act as broadband “anchor institutions” for Anderson Valley has been discussed. “Some Anderson Valley wineries have T1 lines for which they are paying $400 per month,” says Moorehead. “If they have an online presence or have mail order, they need reliability and security for credit card transactions. But it comes with a price. Why don’t we identify wineries as anchor institutions, like firehouses, hospitals or schools? We have a string of potential anchor institutions. T1 will get replaced with another technology. If we could come up with a dozen wineries that said, ‘this is what we need and this is what we can pay for it,’ the Alliance could go to a vendor list and the PUC and request 60 percent of the funding for the project. Service could be expanded into Philo, Holmes Ranch and Navarro,” says Moorehead.
The residents of the hilly Sherwood/Willowbrook area near Willits use dial-up, Verizon and ATT. “Parts of the copper in that area has not been maintained. This is another 70 percent subsidy possibility, but it’s complicated because there is no nearby fiber. If their road association approves a mailing, a notice of opportunity will be sent,” says Moorehead.
In order to qualify for FCC Connect America Subsidies which can be awarded to providers to help offset the cost of creating rural networks, a region must prove they are under or un-served.
The Alliance has created a voluntary, countywide data-mapping project, in the hopes that the federal government and service providers can see the gaping holes in county Internet access and bandwidth speed that Mendocino County residents contend with on a daily basis.
Outmoded and inaccurate data maps created by Internet service providers are what the government uses to award the subsidies. “Federal and state maps indicate Mendocino County has 84 percent of the housing units served. We all know this is grossly incorrect and estimate only approximately 50 percent of households are served,” Shirley Freriks explains.
Recently, the Broadband Alliance convened a “Demand Broadband Day” in Willits. Committee members answered questions, handed out information and t-shirts and encouraged visitors to fill out the all-important broadband survey. Bob Perkowski, owner of Perkowski Screen Printing in Ukiah was one of the event coordinators. “I had people waiting for me when I arrived. It was a wonderful response for the public,” he notes.
It’s no surprise that the group utilized state-of-the-art technology at the event. The business cards they handed out were encoded with a “QR” code- the square-shaped glyphs which enabled those with smart phones to immediately access the Broadband Alliance website and fill out the survey.
According to committee member Shirley Freriks, community responses confirm the clear need for an affordable telecommunications service that will link people residing in local neighborhoods and the world. About 45 residents filled out the survey forms.
“The confidential survey results allow the Alliance to identify areas that are completely unserved and need service,” says Freriks. The survey also identifies areas not meeting the FCC’s minimal download speed.
Sheriff Tom Allman stopped by the event, stating he wants all residences to have Internet access so his departments can communicate quickly in case of emergency, like the forest fires of 2008. “The lack of ability to communicate was the biggest problem in that emergency,” Allman noted.
“Supervisor John Pinches visited the event and sees the need for communities to come together to support this necessary infrastructure, similar to when electricity was extended out to Spy Rock Road,” Freriks explained.
Thus far, the Alliance has not been able to gather a good data sampling from the north county. “We need to make a good faith effort to help them,” says Moorehead.
Brian Churm has been evaluating the survey data. “There is a digital divide that exists in our connected cities of Ukiah, Fort Bragg and Willits. Broadband is available, people want it, but they do not have it. A conclusion one could draw is that they cannot afford it, given current family finances,” he notes.
Churm reports as many as 41% of DSL subscribers who responded to the survey do not know what they are paying for, and that only 11 percent reported DSL speeds meeting FCC broadband guidelines.
Governments and providers use the terms “underserved” and “unserved” to characterize the network speed at which a user is able to send and receive data. The down-and-upload of network speed is measured in Mbps, or Megabits per second. “The PUC considers someone ‘served’ if they are getting 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up,” explains Moorehead. “If you’re getting 4 down and 1 up, you are underserved,” says Moorehead.
In Mendocino County, based upon a 5 Mbps download and a 1 Mbps upload speed, 24% of the Alliance’s survey respondents are unserved, 68% are underserved and a mere 8% are served.
And using the FCC’s criteria of download speeds greater than 3 Mbps and upload speeds greater than 0.768 Mbps, Mendocino County rates a dismal 51st among California counties.
“We have enough statistically relevant data at this point, but we need more,” says Moorehead, who is hoping more rural residents will fill out the survey and send their confidential responses to the Alliance. The Alliance, which provides “connection test” links on their website, encourages all Internet users to test their own up-and-download speeds, and compare them to federal guidelines and speeds promised by their service providers.
Moorehead and committee members are grateful that county government has taken notice of their efforts. “In all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never had such a positive interaction with the Board of Supervisors,” says Moorehead. Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg and Deputy CEO Steve Dunnicliff make it a point to attend the Alliance’s meetings as much as their schedules allow. “We also have the full support of Supervisor John McCowen, though he isn’t able to attend as many meetings,” says Moorehead.
“My interest in expanding access to high-speed internet has everything to do with my job as Supervisor,” says Dan Hamburg. “Service to our District is spotty and expensive, whether you live near Ukiah along Highway 253 as I do, or virtually anywhere in the District outside of Boonville or Mendocino,” he notes.
Hamburg decries the lack of Internet service for seniors, businesspeople, students and those needing health care. “It's par for the course that the state and federal government, with the encouragement of their corporate pals, has done such a poor job ensuring that people have the same guaranteed access to broadband that they once had to electricity or the telephone. In fact, there is no guarantee of universal service. We are organizing locally and fighting for the access we need to function as 21st century citizens,” he continues.
“Coastal pioneers Shirley Freriks and Jim Moorehead were leading this charge long before I was on the Board. The BAMC has become a thriving committee of dedicated and talented folks. My hat is off to the Alliance,” Hamburg concludes.
Meanwhile, another Friday passes and the group is again convening for an intense, two-hour confab. “We asked ourselves, do we really need to meet every week for two hours? Absolutely. If the meetings conclude in one hour, that will tell us something, but right now, we usually have a hard time covering everything,” says Moorehead.
“We’ve got a core group that has enough energy and center of gravity to keep us going. And we’ve had successes. We haven’t deployed any broadband yet, but we’re certainly not going backwards,” he smiles.
Perhaps, if there is any takeaway from the Alliance’s work, it is the realization that most of us do not understand what broadband is, and there is an increasing necessity for regular folks to do so. Learning what broadband is can be compared to knowing how to operate the remote for your television. It’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but somebody in the family has to read the manual and program the devices in order to use TIVO or see the movie in HD.
Broadband is not the way information is delivered. It is not cable, cellular, satellite or DSL. It is more akin to a water pipe that carries information. The larger the pipe, the faster the information sends and receives. But broadband is more than the pipe- it’s the speed at which the information flows through it. Like plumbers, the members of the Alliance are trying to “re-pipe” Mendocino County- unclogging, replacing, creating and connecting bigger, faster, technologically superior “pipes” to maximize the digital age’s water of life: information. The Broadband Alliance is not the most glamorous, heart-stringy non-profit in the county, but there is virtually no doubt that in years to come, their successes and failures will be measured by every Mendocino County resident’s ability to rapidly, seamlessly Log On, Download, Tweet, View or Share.
For more information on broadband, local Internet options, completing the survey, making a donation or volunteering, visit http://mendocinobroadband.org/ .