Broadband redlining in rural California, a tale of two mayors

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Internet access in rural California is fantastic, and it’s awful. Those two messages were delivered to the California Public Utilities Commission last week by, respectively, the mayors of Mammoth Lakes and Oroville.

The reason for the difference? A big, fat open access middle mile fiber route, paid for by state and federal subsidies. The same type of project that the California legislature and governor Brown banned from future funding by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

Mammoth Lakes mayor John Wentworth invited CPUC commissioners to “come over the eastern Sierra and visit the great telecommunications and broadband capacity we have over there”. He called out the Digital 395 project, an open access fiber network that runs from Reno to Barstow, going through Mammoth Lakes and most other communities on the eastern slope of the Sierra. It was built with grants from CASF and the federal government and, according to Wentworth, is providing the raw material for a high tech economy.

He was followed by Oroville mayor Linda Dahlmeier, who told commissioners about her struggle to convince AT&T and Comcast to upgrade their infrastructure to meet minimal performance standards…

One of the first thing that happens anytime it rains in my community is our services go out, because the infrastructure from AT&T…is so inefficient that it can’t supply the needs just on a regular basis. Especially if there’s any moisture in the air…

I’ve worked in the banking industry for many years…this is what banking used to call redlining. When I asked Comcast to do development on the other side, because the infrastructure is so poor on AT&T’s [side] and they will not improve it…for them to come and even cross my Oro Dam Boulevard is $2.5 million. And that’s $2.5 million that our community doesn’t have. Nor do we have access to last or middle mile because AT&T and Comcast have defined that they serve our area adequately, which is not a true statement…

You can actually drive down [highway] 162 and see on one side of the street where Comcast is a provider, which does a significantly better job, and you can see the development. On the other side where you have AT&T…it looks like a slum. It’s that big of a difference. And it’s that side of my community that is where my industrial development would happen.

Oroville, like many other rural California communities, has triple trouble. The telco – AT&T – won’t upgrade its decaying copper plant, preferring instead to milk its existing investment as long as it can and then back fill with less reliable and more expensive wireless service. The cable company – Comcast – only builds where the revenue stream from a given neighborhood meets its revenue requirements.

Finally, there’s no incentive for incumbents to change and no hope of competition.

Unlike Mammoth Lakes and the rest of the eastern Sierra, where publicly subsidised fiber is improving incumbents’ service, supporting competitive providers and driving economic development.