Closing the Rural Broadband Gap
By Emily Compton
If there were ever a critical time for access to high-speed broadband internet in rural communities, that time is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted how Americans work, how children learn, and how we all communicate. Although the pandemic was far beyond the horizon and it was unknown just how much communities would need internet access, Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications (PST) began work on bridging the digital divide long ago.
PST began bringing internet services to the region in 1995. Flash-forward to today, when high-speed internet access is no longer a want but a need. PST has found creative ways to bring high-speed internet to its customers, whether through utilizing abandoned TV coaxial cable systems, satellite, or fiber.
In 2010, through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, PST received a grant to build the backbone of its fiber system. Fiber serves as the core of PST’s communications infrastructure for the region with a middle-mile fiber-optic network running from Reno, Nevada, north to Susanville and west to Quincy, California.
The biggest challenge telecom providers face when serving hard-to-reach customers is cost. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that at least 6.3 million households in electric cooperative service areas lack high-speed internet access. Grant funding plays a vital role in closing the digital divide that exists in many areas Plumas-Sierra serves.
PST was awarded five California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grants in late 2019, totaling $9.6 million. Construction began in early 2020. CASF’s purpose is to bridge the digital divide in unserved and underserved areas in California. It was started in 2007 and is part of the California Public Utilities Commission.
The benefits of fiber optics don’t stop at speed and reliability. According to a study in “State of North American Broadband 2017,” fiber optic internet increases a home’s value by 3.1%. For a $200,000 home, that is more than $6,000. Further, a study in “Better Broadband Boosts Home Value” found that the “availability of high- speed internet is listed by 91% of home-seekers as the most important thing when choosing a community to call home.”
Where direct fiber-to-the-premises connections are not possible, PST has deployed other technologies such as wireless and coaxial cable backed by its fiber network to reach as many people as possible.
The five grants awarded in 2019, will help bring broadband to C-Road/Mohawk Vista, areas of Portola, Elysian Valley/ Johnstonville, Keddie, Lake Davis, and Johnsville. All of the projects are in the final construction phases with some of the areas beginning to open for sales.
The grant projects had a 12-month construction timeline. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfire damage during the summer, delays in obtaining materials, and winter weather delays, that timeline has been extended. PST fiber optic cable was damaged during the Loyalton, North Complex, and Sheep Fires, setting back timelines as crews worked as quickly as possible to restore service.
PST has coordinated with many other organizations in order to keep the construction running smoothly. Whether working with CalTrans, county permitting departments, or private citizens, PST is working to bring service as quickly as possible.
As access to high-speed internet expands into rural areas, communities are able to support those who wish to telecommute or move their businesses to rural areas. It also benefits businesses that are already established in local areas. Jim Graham, the owner of J & J’s Grizzly Store and Camping Resort near Lake Davis in Portola has received fiber-optic service from PST since November 2020 and describes his service as “excellent.” J & J’s is in the process of installing Wi-Fi park-wide so that all visitors will have access to high-speed internet.
Without access to affordable high-speed broadband, rural Americans are at risk of falling behind their fellow citizens. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital divide between urban and rural areas has only been further highlighted.
According to the FCC, 97% of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed internet services while in rural areas that number falls to 65%. Access to high-speed broadband brings access to health care, educational services, and business opportunities.
While the past year and the COVID-19 pandemic made clearer the digital divide, PST is hopeful for the future.
Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications submitted six additional CASF grant applications in 2020, and was awarded one of them to bring high-speed broadband internet to the Scott Road area of Sierra and Lassen counties. Construction of this project is expected to begin in early 2022, once environmental review and permitting are complete.
“The PST team has faced many unprecedented challenges this past year,” says Aaron Whitfield, PST’s chief operating officer. “As we look forward, we are equipped and ready with a new hope, a strong team, and a greater appreciation for the many new resources and opportunities that the grants provide.”
PST understands that many of our community members are struggling to pay their bills and that broadband is now a vital service. PST is working with its customers as much as possible to make payment arrangements during these difficult times, and offers assistance to income-qualified customers. Please contact PST for more information.