Bridging the digital divide

By Shannon Rapose
Kern Valley Sun

On December 20, 2007, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted Decision (D.) 7-12-054, which was a commitment to make high-quality telecommunication services widespread and available to all Californians. The CPUC believed this decision would help ensure the rapid implementation of advanced information and communication technologies through adequate long-term investment in the necessary infrastructures that many communities across the state so desperately need in hopes of promoting economic growth, job creation, and substantial social benefits in underserved or unserved areas in the state of California, and not just in urban communities.

According to CPUC, the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) was authorized to provide grants to “telephone corporations” to bridge the “digital divide” in unserved and underserved areas, like the Kern River Valley, throughout the state. With an initial funding budget of $100 million, the CASF is supposed to help support projects that would provide broadband services to areas currently without broadband access and, if funds were still available, build facilities that would support the necessary infrastructure that these underserved communities would need to sustain long term access.

In order to apply for CASF grants, an area had to form or join a consortium that would represent the region that was lacking in broadband access. In early 2009, the communities of the Kern River Valley joined the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium (ESCRBC), which also represented communities in Inyo and Mono County.

After submitting an application, the CASF approved MCC Telephony of the West, which is a subsidiary of Mediacom Communications Corp. (MCC), to receive grant funding for the Kernville Interconnect Project (KIP), a middle mile project, in the amount of $285,992, which was about 40 percent of the project’s anticipated cost, at that time. When completed, KIP would provide 32.3 miles of underground fiber optic cable along Hwy. 178, stretching between Ridgecrest to Lake Isabella over Walker’s Pass, thereby delivering high-speed broadband Internet access to approximately 9,179 households, covering about 44 square miles.

Unfortunately, the project has stalled due to required environmental reviews from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that have not yet been completed. According to ESCRBC, this snag has been caused by MCC’s and other governmental agencies’ inability to follow through with the work required to finish the reviews. In some instances, the studies have been done multiple times because they were no longer relevant. As a result, nearly 9 years later, MCC has still not requested or received any of the CASF grant funding that is needed to move the project forward.

According to Judy Hyatt, who has been involved with the ESCRBC since the beginning, this is not the case for all involved. Both Mono and Inyo County have separated from the ESCRBC to form the sub-consortium Inyo-Mono Broadband Consortium because they have managed to accomplish coverage to the majority of their communities.

“It’s really hard to get excited about moving forward when you have this huge roadblock right in front of you,” said Hyatt. “I go to these consortia meetings and hear about all the great things different communities are doing, and we are still over here with no infrastructure.”

In January of this year, the ESCRBC submitted a letter to the CPUC to inform them that MCC has failed to communicate with Kern River Valley representatives on the status of the project and to request that CASF funding be revoked so that it could be made available for other providers that have expressed interest in bringing acceptable bandwidth to the communities of Kern River Valley.

“No one understands our angst until they have had to deal with what we have been dealing with,” said Hyatt, referring to the unreliable and inconsistent internet service that has plagued the Kern River Valley for years.

On Monday, March 5, representing ESCRBC, Paul Quinn from Kern Valley Hospital District (KVHD), Debbie Hess from KVHD, and Judy Hyatt of Hyatt Consulting, participated in an interview with KUZZ reporter Kelly Pierce in hopes of bringing attention to the matter. Kern River Valley residents Tim McGlew from KVHD, Marsha Smith from the Kern Valley Sun and Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce President, and Fred Clark from Farmers Insurance also participated in the interview to share their concerns.

All expressed their frustrations and emphasized the urgent need for reliable and high-speed internet access for not their businesses and organizations, but for the entire Kern River Valley community that would greatly benefit from high speed Internet for schoolwork, telecommuting, data enhanced farming operations and not to mention access to government benefits and healthcare information.

Both Quinn and McGlew stressed the fact that Kern Valley Hospital simply cannot compete and is severely lacking in its ability to adequately treat its patients because they do not have access to adequate and reliable Internet.

“In healthcare, we use broadband to save lives,” said Quinn, who is CIO at KVHD. “Because we can’t get specialized providers and special services to our small valley, we use things like telemedicine and teleradiology to provide healthcare to our community.”

Quinn stated that KVHD often has to transfer patients who need care out of the valley to other hospitals, typically an hour away through treacherous roadways, which can negatively impact or compromise the health of the patient, due to the inconsistent and inadequate Internet they receive from their current providers, Frontier and Mediacom.

“There are so many benefits to having that connectivity and bringing fiber (optic) to the valley,” said Quinn. “The community as a whole would benefit tremendously with increased services and new opportunities.”

Quinn and McGlew also reconfirmed that because the CASF grant funding is ear-marked for Mediacom to use, the company is not only not following through on their promise, but they are also blocking other providers and opportunities to bring broadband internet to the valley.

“We need fiber, and we need it yesterday,” said Quinn.

KVHD CEO Tim McGlew also added that the currently proposed upload and download speeds are grossly insufficient for the telemedicine that KVHD relies on.

“We have to have great bandwidth to insure that the images are not pixelated or that there is no break in the audio that goes through so that things don’t get miscommunicated that would greatly impact patient care,” said McGlew. “It’s extremely frustrating. We have to have a much more powerful broadband than what is being proposed.”

When asked what the Kern River Valley community could do to possibly help the situation, Hyatt stated that they are hoping to spread the word and get the community involved by starting petitions or contacting Mediacom and the CPUC to express their concerns and the need for broadband.

“It’s time to let them know that we as a community need to move on,” said Hyatt. “We are more than ready. It’s crucial to the livelihood of this valley.”

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