There are two projects underway in western Nevada County to bring stronger internet to select homes and businesses.
The first is a $27 million Bright Fiber project, connecting 2,000 households in six zones along Highway 174 — from Idaho Maryland to Chicago Park — to high-speed internet. The second is run by Nevada County Fiber Inc., using the county’s Last Mile Broadband program to bring underground fiber optic to 25 homes and businesses in the Red Dog and Banner Quaker Hill Road areas.
But more projects are potentially in the works.
In May, Nevada County Fiber, Exwire, Inc. (now Oasis Broadband) and Race Communications applied for California Advanced Service Fund grants to provide service to Nevada County residents in different areas. Nevada County Fiber hopes to serve up to 50 California Advanced Service Fund eligible customers in the Buckeye Road and Banner Quaker Hill Road areas. Oasis Broadband applied for a grant to service residents in Kingswood West in the North Tahoe area, and Race Communications applied to make a project called Gigafy Nevada City, which is meant to supply last mile broadband for up to 499 customers.
But some are concerned that the process by which these projects take place won’t ultimately reach the aims of the county to ensure internet availability, affordability and adequacy.
“The reality is that incumbent telecom providers who have little incentive to connect low-density rural communities dominate these programs,” states the 2019 Nevada County Broadband Strategy report. “The experience with both programs has been one of delayed project timelines, litigation and frustration.”
Andrew Wilkinson, owner of Nevada County Fiber, understands that skepticism. He believes it’s important to invest money in an underground fiber cable project that works and reduces its costs before creating a community-owned operation.
“It has to start with crawl first, then walk, then run,” he said.
While he doesn’t yet have a timeline, Wilkinson, who said he’s been partnering with the Sierra Business Council, thinks it’s important to show county residents that having fiber connectivity is possible and affordable, before passing it off to a democratically owned and controlled community operation.
“I do believe this is a utility,” he said. “People need broadband.”
In either case, Wilkinson said he’ll prove himself to the community not by what he says but by what he does with his company’s upcoming projects. If they are to take off, he will then introduce them to the community for discussion about democratic control and providing universal, affordable access.
Devin Koch, president at Oasis Broadband, said that while community-owned broadband programs offer some positive results, namely a tendency toward affordability, privately owned entities can offer several advantages to a community.
“When there’s a commercial enterprise involved, like any other company, we have to meet laws, follow standards, and use our own money to do it — there isn’t a lot of government involved, so if we think it’s a good investment, we have control over how things are handled,” he said.
“The county funding model worked very well,” said Koch, referring to the county’s broadband grants.
According to Koch, this was due in part to the parties involved having watched the state grant program suffer and produce little in the way of results.
“The Nevada County program certainly provided a low overhead and flexible way for (internet service providers), not community broadband consortiums, to get funding and make progress,” he said.
Koch said an issue with some proposals for community broadband programs is that it can be difficult for non-commercial entities to assess a proper framework for the business to provide service.
“Having a commercial entity stand behind, put up financials, and have a long operating history — they know in our case who they’re working with, and they’ve seen us light up lots of communities with service over the last 18 years,” he said.
Noting that some service providers are currently struggling, in particular in rural areas, to provide basic internet connectivity as work-from-home demand ramped up suddenly with COVID-19, Koch said, “What the community needs right now is players who are flexible, can build quickly as can be done with wireless, and are building for the future.”
He said wireless and fiber-based technology, which Oasis Broadband uses, gives increased flexibility for sudden changes in demand.
Harvard law professor Susan Crawford believes the reason rural areas do not yet have strong, reliable internet is due to a lack of regulation over privately controlled telecommunication companies.
“The completely deregulated private companies on which we depend for wired communications have systemically divided markets, avoided competition and established monopolies in their geographic footprints,” she writes in her 2018 book “Fiber.” “The results are terrible: very expensive yet second-rate data services, mostly from local cable monopolists, in richer neighborhoods; the vast majority of Americans unable to buy a fiber optic subscription at any price; and many Americans, particularly in rural and poorer areas, completely left behind.”
The spaces in the U.S., and around the world, that have provided affordable and universal access to strong internet are where the service is treated like a utility, and run by a democratically operated and owned entity via either a cooperative or government agency, she argues.
Kristin York, vice president of business innovation for the Sierra Business Council, said her organization shares many of Crawford’s concerns.
“We are very skeptical of large incumbent broadband businesses providing widespread internet to rural communities such as Nevada County,” she wrote in an email. “Their business models are focused on one thing and one thing only — massive profits. These are largely publicly held companies accountable to their share price. The lower density of rural communities simply does not pencil for them to invest in broadband infrastructure because the payback does not meet their internal hurdle rates. Local broadband providers have been much more responsive to the specific needs of the county.”
York, like Andrew Wilkinson, also appreciates the cooperative, open access model where a transport layer — the fiber cable — is democratically owned and operated while other companies compete to provide service.
“Open access models are why you can go to Europe, or literally any other country in the world, and get free, fast internet,” she wrote. “It’s built on an open access model with public funding.”
Michael Anderson — a co-owner of Clientworks Inc., a former chief information officer of Bright Fiber Network and founder of the Northern Sierra Fiber Broadband Cooperative — is also a proponent of the open access model, run by local cooperatives, mostly because when people are subject to limited boundaries to gain internet service, others nearby are left wanting.
“The issue is always ‘Why did you stop on that street? I’m a street over and I don’t have that,’” he said.
Cooperative models, said Anderson, resolve this tension because they offer need-based solutions where anyone, within a reasonable geographic area, can become a member and receive reasonably priced, fast service. In other words, these cooperatives would build projects, but would not be constrained by grant requirements to cover a particular city or county region.
Some nearby municipalities are taking it upon themselves to try to implement a similar plan. In February, Redding developed a 2020 Broadband Master Plan meant to increase access to fiber internet, specifically with the hopes of introducing a new fiber internet city-owned utility service. According to a city survey, when considering internet service most residents think the cost, speed and choice of provider are most important.
THE FUTURE OF BROADBAND
As some recognize, internet access in the U.S. is generally far slower and more expensive than in most other advanced countries. According to The Next System Project, a democratic collaborative, nearly 133 million Americans don’t have internet connection speeds of at least 250 megabits per second.
Anderson, Crawford, Wilkinson and others said much of this problem stems from preventing democratically controlled broadband from arising.
As of May, at least 22 states are prevented from creating municipal broadband. Some members of Congress are working to overturn this reality, according to InTheseTimes.com. Additionally, the state and Federal Communications Commission have made connectivity more of a priority — having set a connectivity rate of no less than 98% for all households by 2022.
Some local lawmakers are still unable to work around the power that large telecommunication companies wield over broadband, and want more opportunities ensured by the state Legislature to allow local organizations to run their own projects.
“It’s clearly more (of an) imperative now,” said Nevada County District 1 Supervisor Heidi Hall in May. “We’re working from home, kids are doing their studies from home. We need a lot more here.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email [email protected] or call 530-477-4219. Staff Writer Victoria Penate contributed reporting.
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