Calaveras County is participating in a five-county collaborative effort to bring high-speed broadband internet access to rural communities throughout the Central Sierras, Calaveras County Economic and Community Development Director, Kathy Gallino, announced via a press release on Dec. 14.
The five counties involved are Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolomne, and Mariposa, which are made up of mostly rural areas that tend to lack access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet. Together, the five counties will employ a joint powers authority (JPA) to provide utility service to residents, where previously there were limited or no options.
Gallino told the Enterprise, “We're finding that if the rural counties band together, we have much greater power. … People listen to us.”
Initial plans are underway, with broadband firm NEO Connect hired to develop the broadband roadmap.
“The purpose of the Central Sierra Broadband Roadmap will focus on identifying gaps in broadband service, establishing priorities, and to match funding opportunities with these priorities to accelerate investment in broadband infrastructure,” according to the press release.
Gallino has been working on procuring funding through grants, saying, “There's a lot of money out there, we just need to focus.” The first step, according to Gallino, is the roadmap.
The roadmap will survey and compile information on what infrastructure already exists and where it is, according to Gallino. It will also provide processes and tools to “facilitate improvement of services” already available in the area, like Volcano or Xfinity.
Via this collaborative process, Calaveras and neighboring counties will be able to work towards the state’s goal to “bridge the digital divide,” bringing high-speed internet access (100 Mbps download speed or higher) to students and homes across the state. The roadmap aims to develop infrastructure to meet this goal.
Having reliable, fast internet access is more important than ever, with more students in distance learning and people working from home. Even doctors appointments have gone online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those without reliable internet access are at a significant disadvantage, further exacerbating issues that people in rural and low-income communities already face.
“Not only is it needed for our families, but it's needed for our businesses. You’ve got to be able to do business online. You’ve got to have reliable, affordable connectivity,” said Gallino. This is an ongoing issue in Calaveras County.
“One of the things we’re finding, huge economic gaps that we have in secure broadband, especially up in our higher country…the Arnold area all the way up into Alpine County...the 26 corridor into West Point…,” Gallino explained.
Working with NEO Connect is the first step to a solution, in addition to securing funding. Fortunately, In July of this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation for a $6 billion investment that specifically grants funds for the expansion of broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. Through this plan, Calaveras County and others throughout the state will be able to utilize a state-owned open-access middle network to connect local networks and will have access to funds that bring those networks to homes and businesses.
NEO Connect is conducting a survey as part of the Central Sierra Broadband Roadmap, working in partnership with California Forward’s Young Leaders Advisory Council.
“California Forward is a statewide policy-based nonprofit committed to improving government and creating inclusive, sustainable growth for everyone across the state’s diverse regions,” stated Gallino.
The focus of the council will be to determine the effects of limited broadband access on students and senior citizens, and also to conduct outreach to tribal communities in the area.
NEO will work to identify and map existing telecommunications infrastructure (such as fiber optic cable) and then create a plan to fill in coverage gaps.