Tahoe-Truckee Internet speeds continue to lag below federal minimum
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Visit www.tahoeprosperity.org/connected-tahoe to learn more about TPC’s Connected Tahoe project, take the survey and conduct your own speed test.Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the CPUC regulates internet speeds in California. It also incorrectly listed Heidi Hill Drum's name as "Heidi Drum Hill." We regret these errors and have corrected them.
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — The technology industry changes fast, and it’s connected to just about every other industry there is — but Truckee-Tahoe hasn’t been keeping up.
With a $167,000 grant in 2014 from the California Public Utilities Commission, the Tahoe Prosperity Center recently conducted 1,250 speed tests and 650 customer satisfaction surveys to find out about Internet connectivity around Lake Tahoe.
“They were below the minimum requirement for the CPUC guidelines,” said Tahoe Prosperity Center Executive Director Heidi Hill Drum.
She said for the last two years, collecting data has been TPC’s priority, focusing on service in the Lake Tahoe Basin, as well as Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley, as part of the center’s “Connected Tahoe” project.
The CPUC develops and implements policies for the telecommunications industry, and looks at speed in rural areas to ensure those populations have the same opportunities and therefore access to information as those in urban areas. While the commission doesn’t regulate internet speeds, it has established minimum download and upload rates for the purposes of determining grant eligibility.
“We showed areas in our community that don’t meet those speeds or don’t even have high speed Internet,” she said.
As a whole, Tahoe-Truckee residents do not have the same access.
“There’s all these different systems in our region,” said Hill Drum. “… Connected homes are the ones in the more higher density neighborhoods.”
‘NOT WORTH THE INVESTMENT’
It’s a monetary investment for providers to go in and set up service in a neighborhood, or upgrade it. In the areas where there aren’t very many people living, the potential number of people who’ll sign up for service is low. So the cost isn’t always worth it.
“In areas where there are only 50 homes, the return on investment isn’t there for the provider,” said Hill Drum.
There’s also Lake Tahoe’s notorious permitting process, which, because of environmental regulations and overlapping agency jurisdictions, is known for being time-consuming and expensive.
“Depending on where you are in Tahoe, you could be in one of those pockets without very good Internet because the provider has deemed it not worth the investment,” she said.
The CPUC’s online map shows several gaps in service, especially along the West Shore of Lake Tahoe.
While the most underserved communities are along Highway 89 between Emerald Bay and Tahoe City, the nearby communities of Olympic Valley and Norden (at Donner Summit) are also shown as underserved or completely unserved.
On the other hand, the map shows the region along Highway 28 between Tahoe City and Kings Beach is served, as is most of Truckee.
Hill Drum said that according to the TPC regional study, the median download speed for the Tahoe-area is 5.63 megabits per second, while the median upload speed is 1.24 Mbps.
The CPUC’s minimum required download speed is 6 Mbps, and the minimum upload speed is 1.5 Mbps.
For comparison, a report from Seattle-based research firm Ookla lists the average download speed in the state of California at 58.11 Mbps, and the average upload speed is 14.3 Mbps.
In San Francisco, the average download speed is 72.92 Mbps, while the average upload speed is 25.7 Mbps. And last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to increase the minimum download speed to 25 Mbps, and 3 Mbps for uploads.
‘IT’S A MATTER OF EQUIPMENT’
Tahoe Tech Group owner Carl LeBlanc said that businesses in the Truckee-Tahoe region can still function efficiently as long as they’re using the right service and the right equipment.
His business functions primarily as what he calls an “outsourced IT firm,” meaning it provides support to local businesses who have IT needs but aren’t large enough to maintain their own IT staff.
“What we see is either people aren’t using the right provider or equipment,” he said.
“Cable companies are on par with each other,” he added. “Once you’ve chosen your Internet service provider and they can deliver that speed to your address, it’s a matter of equipment.”
But LeBlanc also said speeds decrease for users close to what’s called the “end of the line,” which is where the cable wire ends in a community.
There’s also the issue of capacity, since the number of people using Internet at any given time can change drastically depending on what day of the week it is.
“We have residents who live here year-round and then we have these weekends like July 4th, where we have lots of visitors our infrastructure isn’t equipped to handle it,” Hill Drum said.
‘IT’LL CHANGE EVERYTHING’
But that doesn’t mean Tahoe will be stuck with slow Internet forever.
The Tahoe Prosperity Center is trying to get support for a “dig once” policy, which means that anytime groundwork is done in the region, conduit would be installed.
“Anytime the road is disturbed and they’re able to put conduit into the ground, they’ll do so,” said Hill Drum. “It’s like an empty PVC pipe, and what goes in there is high-speed fiber.”
The idea is that little by little, this work can be done in coordination with other projects to save time and other resources.
“You drive around the lake right now and you see sidewalks, roads and public works projects, and in most cases, none of those include conduit for high speed fiber,” she said. “That’s the next phase for Tahoe — to make sure there are no more missed opportunities to get conduit into the ground.”
Hill Drum said the TPC believes that a fiber Internet connection makes the most sense for the region given its geographical challenges.
“It’s not proprietary, but we’d love it if someone like Google wanted to come in and take on the multi-jurisdictional challenges,” she said.
She said the goal is to eventually have the Tahoe-area wired with high-speed fiber, but currently there’s no provider involved.
The first step, Hill Drum said, is to meet with local governments and public utility districts. The next, she added, will be for TPC to develop a policy with those agencies.
“There are bike path projects right now that don’t have conduit,” Hill Drum said. “There are road projects happening right now that don’t have conduit, and that’s a missed opportunity,”
She said that conduit installation is important because it’ll make connecting the unserved and underserved communities easier in the future.
“Fiber is basically a dream come true,” added LeBlanc. “If and when Google decides to start running fiber through here, it’ll change everything.”