Signing up to get wired
North Shore residents have started a grassroots campaign to obtain high-speed Internet service and vault themselves into the 21st century. The areas of Agate Bay and Carnelian Bay up to Old County, Dollar Point and the Highlands are denied a fast broadband connection because of low population density, the areas mountain terrain and a lack of existing infrastructure, according to AT&T spokeswoman Vanessa Smith. Residents are circulating a petition and gathering signatures in an effort to show Internet service providers, specifically AT&T and Charter Communications, the extent of the demand for broadband Internet service. They also hope to catch the ear of local elected officials.(The petition) has got people to feel like they are speaking to these companies, said Brett Williams of Agate Bay Realty. Williams and North Tahoe resident John Baker started the initiative.So far, more than 400 people have signed the petitions located at the 7-Eleven in Carnelian Bay, CBs Pizza and the Old Post Office Cafe. In addition, faxes from out-of-town residents requesting high-speed Internet service for their second homes have been sent to AT&T representatives. In all, about 600 people have voiced their desire for high-speed Internet service, said Williams.Frustration has been mounting over the dial-up Internet service available in Carnelian Bay and Agate Bay, especially when high-speed capabilities are available in neighboring communities like Kings Beach and Tahoe City.We are concerned about the fact that we are all dial-up servers, said Baker. We need to be brought into the 21st century by AT&T.The luxury of a strong and fast Internet connection is often taken for granted, proponents say. Dial-up connections prevent people from taking full advantage of the Internet. It is more difficult for students to research information online, Internet files take hours to download, customers have trouble accessing public documents, and businesses are at a disadvantage with competitors that have high-speed service.It really hurts all the businesses around here that dont have it, Baker said. The problem is even taking a toll on real estate, said Williams, who grew up in the Tahoe Basin and has worked for seven years in the Agate Bay real estate market. Its starting to affect the values of the properties of the areas that are not serviced by high-speed, said Williams. If you are trying to fill a rental property, two that are similar, one with high-speed and one without, its difficult to lease the second property. You have high-tech people who are looking to lease a property for four to five months for a ski lease, and cant telecommute.
Individually, it has been difficult to convey the need for high-speed service to big conglomerates such as AT&T or Charter Communications, petition organizers said. When someone calls these companies, they cant get to the decision maker, said Williams. The petition allows residents to put across the message to the people who have influence in these companies, he said.In the quest for broadband, Placer County officials are taking a different approach to bring service to the area.We are very supportive of assisting the local community in high-speed Internet and broadband service, said Placer County Chief Assistant CEO Rich Colwell. Placer County is lobbying Internet providers AT&T, Cebridge and Charter Communications to increase their broadband service at the lake. We are asking them to show us not only where they have current services, but also to give us a view of what their expansion plans are in the next 12 to 24 months, said Colwell. In addition to lobbying and working with providers, Placer County officials are applying for grants with the Emerging Technologies Fund that would assist the fiber-optic or copper-wire development needed for high-speed access. In an area like Tahoe, where there is not that many homes, [Internet providers] have to make a tremendous investment in the infrastructure in order to make a profit, said Colwell. A grant from Placer County would subsidize the cost of the infrastructure development, potentially increasing the profitability for the Internet providers. Its driven by private-sector profit motives, said Colwell. Unless the private sector can make a profit, they will put it somewhere else.
The simple issue of profit versus loss may be one of the primary obstacles the North Tahoe community faces regarding high-speed Internet access. Williams describes the situation as a demographic discrimination. A large proportion of second homes in the area discourages Internet providers because they feel they would not receive a profitable rate of return on the investment, denying to many homeowners what has become an essential utility. AT&Ts Smith said infrastructure decisions are based on such factors as population density, competitive threats, an areas terrain and the existing network.When we look at expanding, we look at our existing facilities and see how far we can get our service to extend into the community, said Smith. Service is usually available within three miles of an existing facility, although local terrain can hinder the extent of coverage. Currently, 85 percent of AT&T customers receive high-speed service. For the remaining 15 percent, costly satellite Internet service is the only viable broadband option. Our hope is to extend broadband reach to 100 percent, said Smith. We are constantly looking at our networks to see where we can invest to further extend our services to communities throughout Northern California.Smith did not disclose exact plans and timelines regarding expansion. The residents of Carnelian Bay and Agate Bay are attempting to change the perception that bringing broadband availability to the area would not be profitable. We really feel like they are underestimating the demand for high-speed Internet, said Williams. Many Tahoe second homeowners are from the greater Bay Area, which has one of the highest concentration of Internet and broadband users in the nation, said Williams. The person who is in the position to acquire a second home … doesnt then say that that extra high-speed price of say $30 a month isnt affordable, Williams said. Residents have not seen any effort on behalf of the Internet service providers to measure the demand in the area. Their struggle for a fast Internet connection is turning into a marathon.The message from 2002 was, Its almost here, Williams said. Five years later and people on the North Shore are still connecting to the Internet through a dial-tone.