(Marin Independent Journal (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 18--A partnership of four North Bay counties that includes Marin has formed to bridge the digital divide, aiming to extend fast, affordable Internet service to underserved households in the area.
The North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium, consisting of Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties, came together in the last few months with the goal of wiring the North Bay for the 21st century.
Despite its highly educated population and proximity to tech centers, Marin has the highest percentage of people without broadband access in the nine Bay Area counties, according to the California Public Utilities Commission, giving it a vital interest in the project.
"This is a chance to bring many more Marin residents online," said Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey. "It has moved pretty swiftly. We just started this last November and enticed the Mendocino and Sonoma folks and brought along Napa to make a compelling consortium. We got word in the last month or so that they are on board, and we are moving ahead."
According to the utility commission, 3.2 percent of Marin's households are either underserved or fully unserved for broadband. Sonoma is 1.8 percent underserved or unserved and Napa 1 percent. The remaining six counties are under 1 percent.
In Marin, the four locations that are the least served are Muir Beach, Nicasio, Dillon Beach and a four-city district consisting of Point Reyes, Inverness, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, according to Peter Pratt, a telecommunications consultant who specializes in state and federal financing for rural broadband providers. Pratt, a San Anselmo resident, has been helping the consortium pro bono.
For the next two years, backed with $250,000 in seed money from the utility commission, each of the four counties plans to develop regional maps that identify areas served by an array of Internet connections, whether it's dial-up, satellite or broadband.
The goal would be to use the results to demonstrate the need and push for future state and federal funding to build a network of underground fiber-optic cables connecting libraries, rural fire and sheriff stations, businesses and schools.
"There's a true disparity between the urban and rural parts of the county, so right now the first step is figuring out what need there is -- what availability there is and on what speeds," said Cazadero resident Mike Nicholls, who has been active in efforts to connect rural areas, including the failed Golden Bear Broadband.
The Golden Bear Broadband proposal, initiated three years ago before fizzling out in March, encompassed more than a quarter of the state, and would have provided the anchor for expansion of modern Internet service up the Highway 1 corridor, from Bodega Bay to The Sea Ranch and Mendocino County, and to inland areas like Cazadero and Occidental. Those areas remain underserved by digital technology, officials say.
Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who called the failure of Golden Bear a "devastating blow" at the time, said the new initiative could provide data that would help push major Internet providers to roll out better service to rural areas. He and fellow Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire have lobbied to make broadband expansion a county and regional priority.
"We have been disappointed that some of the incumbent providers have not looked at the rural areas to close the digital divide," Carrillo said. "One of the challenges is that we must work with the providers -- whether it's Verizon, AT&T, Comcast or Sonic, to continue to engage them and see if there might be public-private partnerships."
There are two issues involved in bringing high-speed access to the masses -- access and adoption, Pratt said.
"Access means the availability of a high-speed connection, and adoption means whether or not people are using available resources. Marin has appropriated local money to encourage the adoption of broadband as well," Pratt said. He pointed to programs such as those in the Pickleweed library providing computers and instruction to neighborhood residents in San Rafael's Canal area.
Marin Board of Supervisors "President Kate Sears identified three communities by name, Hamilton, the Canal area and Marin City," Pratt said.
Dean Bonner, a researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California, said Californians see affordable, accessible Internet as a service that should be provided as a public utility, similar to electricity or water.
Two-thirds of those polled viewed high-speed Internet as a public utility that everyone should be able to access. And 67 percent said they'd support a government program funded by telecommunications providers to increase broadband access for lower-income and rural residents through subsidies.
"To me, that says there's a willingness on behalf of the people to change the way we think about and provide broadband," Bonner said.
Angela Hart of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, contributed to this story.
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