Intermittent, slow, and nonexistent internet signal or broadband availability is nothing new for many county residents, particularly those in remote areas. Prior to the pandemic, ill-performing internet was an inconvenience that was generally accepted as a tradeoff for rural living away from crowded cities. Educators and parents, however, have started an earnest journey through technical and bureaucratic jungles as they hunt for long-term solutions.
“The real crisis was in the first three weeks or so when people were just lost and there was uncertainty,” said Alena Anberg, a third grade teacher for Arbuckle Elementary and parent who has become a general on the front lines for expansion of broadband to rural areas.
Anberg brings donated cell phones, equipped with sim cards that she personally purchased, to provide hotspots for families without internet since the 200 T-Mobile hotspots ordered by Pierce Unified School District have not yet arrived.
In Williams, the 1 Million Project through Sprint provided 50 hotspots for students, approximately $60,000 worth of grant funding, according to Alex Evans, Director of Technology Services for the Colusa County Office of Education. Unfortunately for students in Maxwell, there was not enough signal in the area to sustain the hot spot.
Moving forward, there are a lot of moving parts to consider, according to Evans, who has made it his mission to find a solution for internet solutions for the growing need. For the past three years, CCOE has been looking for solutions to the problem from different angles. Using the Upper California Connect Consortium (UCC), Evans said he is able to see areas that have been mapped as having signal and realized how underserved the county is.
One of the challenges Evans has run into is confirming who is actually receiving internet connectivity. He said that the school closures have helped to give more accurate numbers of students that have been going without internet in the home. He implores people that know of a household without internet, to reach out to the school district to make sure that they know about it.
“But if there’s areas where the students don’t have an option at all,” he said. “Those are the ones that we need to make their voices heard, so that we can make this really gain additional traction. And I’m doing my best to try and just get them the funding to take care of it.”
In addition to writing politicians, Anberg has also spent many evenings driving the areas that internet provider Frontier reports to provide service to. Census Mapping is a control measure for the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to know where coverage is needed to be prioritized with federal funding. She said she has discovered that residents at addresses reported to have signal are saying that they do not receive it.
“(Frontier) is not a small company, it’s a multi-billion dollar company,” said Anberg, adding that they are receiving federal funding to provide internet to rural areas.
In the beginning of 2020, the FCC launched a $20.4 billion broadband deployment to close the digital divide.
“Without access to broadband, rural Americans cannot participate in the digital economy or take advantage of the opportunities broadband brings for better education, healthcare, and civic and social engagement,” according to an FCC press release on Jan. 30. “In recent years, the Commission has made tremendous strides toward increasing the availability of broadband in rural America. But more work remains to be done, and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a key part of the FCC’s continuing efforts.”
One long-term solution for CCOE was to mimic another county that had built their own LTE network.
“There’s been several hurdles, but we’ve overcome 95 percent of them. We’re really close to the end of being completely ready to go,” said Evans.
This solution will utilize Sprint’s availability to the county and is awaiting a merger with T-Mobile for two spectrums and 10 megabits of bandwidth. With a higher need of students without the internet, Williams will be the first to pilot this solution. The water tower has been chosen as the host for the radios and antennas with a seven mile radius broadcasting reach.
“We also have students that don’t live in the area and we realized this is kind of a geographic concern, so we’ve taken a county wide approach to that,” said Evans. With permission of the tallest structures in Maxwell, Grimes, Arbuckle, and Colusa, the second part will extend the broadcasting tendrils out to most of the county. The exception is Stonyford and Lodoga, which will likely require a federal grant, and is also currently in the works.
“There’s lots of moving parts and the project changes on a daily basis. I don’t know what revision we’re on,” Evans joked. “But ultimately, we work with whatever resource. We work with a partner to try and leverage the resource as much as we can.” He said that the good news is that a lot of federal and state grants are opening up.
“It is clear what COVID-19 has spotlighted, is that we have a digital divide and that we need to advocate – we move to move towards that the internet. It should be a public utility, just like water and electricity,” said Mary Ponce, principal for Williams Jr/Sr High School. “I hope our government officials, our legislators, our representatives understand that this no longer can be a luxury. This no longer to be a privilege, internet, cannot be a privilege. Internet has to be a right.”
Evans and Anberg both echoed that there is still a journey ahead and for every step backward, there is forward momentum. “If you just attack it from all angles, eventually something has to work,” said Anberg, as she researches possibilities for Arbuckle residents to create their own fiber network and attract the attention of a carrier that can be funded by the Rural Opportunity Fund.
“For every government that wants to help, there’s a government regulations raid stop you know, which is frustrating,” Evans said. “You just have to persevere and consistently push forward.”