Lack of internet in rural areas is an enormous problem, affecting people all over the USA — even in large parts of tech-savvy California. And despite Santa Cruz County’s part in bringing about the internet we know today, some parts of our county lack decent internet too.
As alert newsletter readers know, Cruzio has been sounding the alarm about inequality of internet access for many years. Then, earlier this year, the issue hit home in a devastating way. Some of the copper lines Cruzio leased from AT&T had degraded so much that we could no longer provide reliable service to a small number of our more rural customers. That left a few dozen customers in a bind. Their service wasn’t good, sure, but what else could they do?
Dooners Take Action
The rural residents didn’t take the situation lying down. Many had been through tough times already last year, when fires destroyed so much of their community. They’d had to deal with rebuilding and many other challenges. And here was another: internet. We were disturbed that options were fewer than we’d imagined for some folks, and kept searching for answers.
Bonny Doon residents Phil McManus and Jodi Frediani got super-involved. They appeared with us on a KSQD radio show. We accompanied them to meetings and made public appeals to local elected officials. After so many years of no action, we were worried that folks would be left without options. But the Dooners got the attention of Representative Anna Eshoo, and that was key.
Anna Eshoo to the Rescue
Anna Eshoo is co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus and a Member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in the House of Representatives. That means she is an important political figure in the telecommunications world.
When Eshoo heard of from the activists, she, in turn, took action. She arranged calls with AT&T executives who could actually make a change to the situation — something Cruzio had never been able to do. AT&T did not, unfortunately, promise repairs which would allow us to keep the customers, or provide better service or lower prices. But they did prevent the Bonny Doon folks from losing internet access altogether. AT&T had been refusing to sell DSL service to people (or to Cruzio) in those areas for years. But now they made an exception. They offered to take on a dozen former Cruzio customers — the folks who’d appeared on the radio. along with their neighbors.
But Cruzio knew of several households in other parts of the county who were in the same boat. We insisted they get the same treatment as those who’d spoken up. In the end, despite protests from AT&T, everyone who we knew was left out in the cold was transferred to AT&T service.
We Reach a Compromise
So the story has an ending that’s not exactly happy, but not a disaster, thanks to the efforts of the good folks in Bonny Doon… and to Anna Eshoo, along with Jimmy Panetta, Mark Stone and Ryan Coonerty, who sent a joint formal request to AT&T. Special mention to the staffs: Patty Kim and Asad Ramzanali from Eshoo’s office, Mark Denning from Panetta’s office, and Maureen McCarty who works for Mark Stone — we know staff members often do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work and we want to call out their contributions. They answered our calls, looked for solutions, and helped the elected officials with all the details.
The moral of the story: ignoring telecommunications regulation is perilous. The change in the last few decades away from a public utility model, with universal service and regulated price requirements, has resulted in a free-market free-for-all. Subsidies and grants meant to equalize access are often manipulated by the largest telecom providers to pay for existing, inadequate infrastructure. Rural and low-income areas are starved. Inequality increases.
And We Shouldn’t Drop the Ball — It Could Make a Huge Difference in our County
The new subsidies promised in federal infrastructure bills are still on the drawing board. We hope that Congress does a better job of making long-term improvements to needy areas this time around.
And we’ve had some victories at the state level, thought details are still pending.
Ernesto Falcon from the Electronic Freedom Foundation writes:
“If you live in California, now is the time to talk to your mayor and city council about your future broadband needs. Now is the time to talk to your local small businesses about the future the state has enabled if they need to improve their broadband connectivity. Now is the time to talk to your school district about what they can do to improve community infrastructure for local students. Maybe you yourself have the will and desire to build your own local broadband network through this law.”
Don’t continue the mistake of using government grants to be determined by current assumptions. We saw in the pandemic that current infrastructure isn’t adequate to the work-from-home school-from-home world that’s going to persist into the next decade. We have to build for a future that makes it possible for everyone to share in that new paradigm.
And please know that every time you tell Cruzio you want better internet access, we are logging your query. We are sharing areas of the county that need better infrastructure with public works departments and public advocacy groups. Stay involved and help us get better, more equitable access to Santa Cruz County the Central Coast. Anna Eshoo and the Bonny Doon activists let us know we can really have an effect.