My turn: El Dorado County’s Internet telecommunications problem

El Dorado County’s Internet telecommunications infrastructure has been lacking for the past decade, with about half of premises in the central portion of the county unable to obtain wireline premises Internet connections. As time goes on and more telecommunications and information services shift to the Internet, this problem will only grow worse and adversely affect the local economy, school districts and residential real estate values.

Incumbent wireline Internet service providers lack sufficient business incentive to modernize and build out their networks to reach these premises. The existing telephone provider is concentrating its investments in mobile wireless communications. The cable provider serving Placerville and the surrounding incorporated county recently had a video franchise approved by the California Public Utilities Commission that serves only about half of neighborhoods in this area and redlines the rest.

Fortunately, some local small businesses offer fixed wireless Internet that can reach some of these premises but not others given the county’s rugged and forested terrain that blocks their signals. In addition, the physics of radio limit the amount of data these wireless providers, known as WISPs, can deliver as the demand for Internet bandwidth grows exponentially. Only fiber optic infrastructure can provide the growth capacity to handle this demand.

One foothills area WISP, Spiral Internet, recognizes the need to migrate to this higher capacity infrastructure and has developed a project to construct a fiber optic connections to premises network in Nevada County. In addition, the Gold Country Broadband Consortium, an entity formed by the CPUC to promote Internet access and adoption, recognizes WISPs provide only an interim solution to the area’s needs.

El Dorado County is not alone in this situation. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, hundreds of local governments in the United States have recognized the need to be proactive in addressing this infrastructure challenge given Internet infrastructure is to the 21st century what roads and highways were to the 20th, endeavoring to build their own networks.

Whether a private investor-owned provider, a consumer cooperative, or a public-private partnership ultimately builds this critical infrastructure in El Dorado County, a key takeaway from the experience of other local governments is these projects only begin when some amount of initial planning work has been done by the locals.

For project sponsors, that groundwork reduces uncertainty and paves the way for these complex and costly projects to move forward. Most critically, it demonstrates a commitment and willingness to invest needed resources to make these projects possible. “Skin in the game” speaks volumes and gets the attention of potential network builders and funding sources over a locality that has sat back passively, waiting in vain for others to act.

For El Dorado County, modern fiber optic to the premise infrastructure would potentially attract businesses that might not otherwise choose to locate here if it were not available. For the central and eastern areas of the county, fiber would enable those areas to retain their rural character, helping small and home-based businesses to participate in the digital economy without the need for controversial new land development and transportation infrastructure.

It’s time for county leadership to take tangible steps to move forward on this critical infrastructure challenge.

Frederick L. Pilot is a resident of Camino.

Special to the Democrat

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