AppId is over the quota
Totally understand why the author wants to live here.Dave Loschiavo
Totally understand why the author wants to live here.Dave Loschiavo
Behold, the author’s current hometown of Sloat, CA. (Population density for the area is roughly that of Montana.)
SLOAT, Calif.—Plumas County is rural, mountainous, and at the far north of the Sierra Nevada Range. In area, it is larger than the individual states of Rhode Island and Delaware, but the population here is under 20,000. It all makes for a beautiful place to live, but some amenities that are common in more densely populated areas can be hard to come by.
High-speed Internet access that’s reliable across all seasons of the year is one clear example. In 2014, the local cable TV provider (New Day Broadband) went bankrupt, taking with it the only source for cable-based Internet access in the town of Quincy, California. It was also the only tethered high-speed provider accepting new customers. AT&T used to offer DSL in the area, but the company stopped taking on new clients and does not allow existing customers to transfer service. And while both satellite Internet access and multiple WISPs (wireless ISPs) are available, both of these delivery methods face reliability challenges in stormy, snowy weather (a common occurrence for this area in the winter).
With that in mind, you can imagine my surprise when in recent years I learned a local ISP—Plumas Sierra Telecommunications—now offers fiber to the doorstep. This new availability of reliable, high-speed Internet access allowed me to shift from an office job to telecommuting, meaning my wife and I could return to the rural Sierra Nevada after 15 years of living in the metropolis of Southern California.
Today we use the service for my work (transferring large files, connecting to my employer’s VPN, collaboration on SharePoint, etc.) and for entertainment. We do not have an option for cable TV and have not subscribed with a satellite provider. We stream entertainment from Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Pandora, and others. And thankfully the service has been very consistent, even during snow. When writing this piece, it was snowing, and I ran five speed tests from different sites. The average download and upload speeds were 48.4Mbps and 9.8Mbps. See for yourself.
So how can I live in a ghost town (Sloat, CA) within Plumas County, where the population density (7.7 people per square mile) is roughly that of Montana, and still get fiber-based Internet access? The idea started with Bob Marshall, CEO of Plumas Sierra Telecommunications and the Plumas Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative, and Lori Rice, former COO. PST has been offering Internet access to residents of Plumas County since 1995, and the company was an early provider for the area. In 2003, they brought high-speed access, and eventually upgrading to fiber seemed a natural, if challenging, progression.
Unlike cable companies in urban areas, PST faced the expense of building out infrastructure solely for the purpose of bringing fiber-based Internet access to its customers. This meant pulling fiber from Reno, Nevada (about 50 miles from the PST headquarters in Portola, CA). And from there, they still needed to extend the fiber throughout their service area.
PST applied for, and received, a $13.8 million grant funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. With matching 10 percent funds from both the state and PST, they had a budget in place. The grant was specifically for closing the “middle-mile” gap, with the goal of bringing broadband service to anchor institutions (e.g., hospitals, schools, and other government offices) in these rural, mountain communities.
Because the ARRA grant was for a middle-mile effort, it did not cover access to the consumer’s doorstep. This meant “neighborhoods” of rural customers needed to have enough people commit to subscribing before PST could pull additional fiber to them. As it turns out, our little ghost town made the cutoff with four customers to spare. Others have not been as fortunate. The current waiting list includes our neighbors across Highway 70, who are practically in sight of my kitchen window.
Enlarge / Ask this drill bit, laying fiber can be hard.Getting 185 miles of fiber installed was only one of several challenges faced by PST while bringing doorstep access to this rural, mountainous community. The run under the town of Quincy was particularly challenging. Because the community had removed overhead poles in favor of underground wires, PST had to drill horizontally through hundreds of yards of granite, wrecking multiple drill bits in the process (see photo). The process pushed the completion date back by two months.
PST tried to extend their service by applying for a “last mile” grant, but they did not succeed. This was at least partially due to the presence of Digital Path, a WISP servicing some of the areas PST targeted for expansion. In response, PST has grown their service area by increasing the number of customers they serve through wireless. So when working in areas with dense populations of standing trees, PST uses 900MHz. In more open areas, they use 5.8GHz. Some of the areas served today are very rural. Examples include the communities of Chilcoot-Vinton (population 454), Beckwourth (population 432), and Sierraville (population 200).
At times, customer buy-in has also been challenging. This is not surprising; the initial setup fee for fiber is $300 and the ongoing monthly subscription is $109. Any reluctance makes sense considering the median household income in Plumas County is 25 percent less than that of California as a whole. So in paying for the first year of service, costs would equate to 3.5 percent of the median household income. On top of that, most of the households in the area have never had high speed Internet access. It can be hard to convince someone they need to spend that much on high speed Internet access if they’ve never experienced the benefits.
For those living elsewhere and paying $69.00 a month for FIOS from Verizon or another urban provider, these costs may seem high, but there’s a reason for that difference—customer density. According to this map from FiberForAll.org, Verizon offers FIOS in five California counties: Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Ventura. These counties range from 130 percent (San Bernardino) to 91,792 percent (Los Angeles) more densely populated than Plumas County. More clients per foot of cable means a greater return on the infrastructure and a lower cost per household. With high speed Internet, it is all about scale.Enlarge / At the Quincy Co-Working space, business has been a lot faster.
For now, the presence of high-speed Internet is having an early impact on the local communities and their economies. My wife and I are only one example of a household that is in Plumas County because of the new opportunities this access provides. Others happy fiber-ites include the customers of the area’s local co-working space, Quincy Collective. Among the folks utilizing that service (myself included), the Quincy Collective hosts a world-traveling husband-and-wife team working as videographers and bloggers, an individual splitting his time between Uganda and the Northern Sierra Nevada, and a part time instructor at Feather River College in Quincy. Additional community members who could not live here without access to reliable, high speed Internet access include a nurse pursuing her Master’s degree online, a publisher, and a manager of a manufacturing plant in Chico who can now monitor production and attend meetings via Skype while living in his mountain home.
All those individuals wouldn’t have been able to live here (or, not with their current jobs at least) as recently as two years ago. PST started its fiber initiative way back in 2010, and its first recipients (nearby schools, colleges, libraries, county offices, hospitals, and a handful of businesses) began seeing benefits in late 2013. The company hoped larger entities like AT&T would come in to provide the last mile off PST’s new fiber backbone, but those kind of arrangements have been slow to form. And the costs of adding fiber to neighborhoods or commercial areas remains significant if working without a grant. This final mile work costs an average of $10 per foot, according to the Plumas County News‘ 2015 fiber rollout update (and that per-foot measurement goes to the nearest point that a service line can be added in).
The lesson here is an old one—if you build it, they will come—with a twist. It remains hard for those outside of population-dense areas to get fast and reliable Internet today, and it’s equally challenging for local service providers to build the infrastructure.<Dave Loschiavo is a cybersecurity consultant who's lucky to live in the beauty of the northern Sierra Nevada. In the name of full disclosure, many years ago he worked with a former business partner to provide technical support for PST customers in return for “free” dial-up accounts.
Listing image by Dave Loschiavo