Internet for all, not just the few

02/18/2016

One of the greatest attributes of the Internet is that it can level the playing field, especially in education. It’s why I got into computers and the Internet back in 1991, and it is still what motivates me to bring the Internet to as many people as possible. I don’t see it as a luxury, but rather as a tool to which everyone should have access.

As the owner of a Marin County-based Internet company, I have helped implement many advances in usability over the past 20 years. People want Internet access wherever they are, and they want access all the time. The problem is the cost of getting high-speed Internet to rural users.

Currently a group of residents in West Marin who want high-speed broadband service is seeking funding from the California Public Utilities Commission under the California Advanced Services Fund program. Their goal is 1 gigabit to the home, which would make it the fastest home Internet sold today. 

Public web servers like Amazon and NetFlix, and email servers like Gmail and Yahoo, are also 1 gigabit, but they are used by millions of people. Divide a gig—a billion—by millions, and that’s the bandwidth Internet users get to use. It’s like a pie divided among four people or 30 people; the more people, the thinner the slice of pie, or the less bandwidth allocated for individual use.

Fiber is very expensive to deploy, but it can be run much longer distances than ethernet cable. But what about wireless? Wireless carries everything, every day, across California and the rest of the country, from phone calls to bank transfers. There are no fiber runs across the Rockies, but there is wireless. Those large, round dishes you see on tower sites are how your phone and other data gets sent to their next hop. Compared to fiber, wireless is fast, secure and inexpensive to deploy.

The California Advanced Services Fund program has determined that funding will only be given for fiber deployment in West Marin—and in all other rural areas across the state. Despite my conversations, requests and protests, I was told there is no money available for the deployment of rural wireless Internet access. Only fiber deployment qualifies for the cost-share program. 

So who pays for this fiber rollout? We, the taxpayers. I do not begrudge anyone wanting fast Internet, not for a single second. I am bothered, however, that there has not been an open and transparent discussion about it. Instead of bringing fiber to less than 250 homes for $2.4 million, we could be bringing high-speed wireless to more than 1,000 homes for the same amount of money. 

Fiber has to be buried in conduit along roads or strung across poles to make it financially feasible to deploy; wireless doesn’t care about those things. And though most wireless requires line-of-sight, most rural homes in West Marin, including those hidden in the woods and valleys, could get Internet through a combination of wireless and ethernet. And there is new non-line-of-sight wireless technology.

Wireless would literally cost pennies on the dollar compared to fiber but, since wireless has no lobby, its gets no money.  

The government is about to donate $2.4 million for the deployment of fiber in a West Marin project that will only serve a very small number of homes—less than 250—in a very small geographic area. The decision has already been made, and there seems to be no turning back. 

I’d like to see 99 percent of underserved users in Marin get high-speed Internet. It can be done, but only if we work together and spend the available money wisely and efficiently. But how do we communicate effectively when the people in charge of spending simply will not listen?

 

Internet consultant Peter Skeels founded WePerception in 1994, when the industry was in its infancy. He lives in Novato.