How’s it going?: The future of broadband in Nevada County
By Jennifer Nobles
It’s probably no surprise that at this point, broadband internet access has become more important not just to businesses but to individuals as well. Those who rely on the service to obtain and maintain everything from tax documents to payments and purchases are handled through the use of the internet, and in Nevada County—its many rural areas included—the service isn’t always easy to come by.
Many efforts have been made in recent years in order to provide broadband to all areas, but many obstacles have prohibited a wide sector of the population here to obtain trustworthy service.
What hasn’t been helpful to these efforts? The COVID pandemic.
According to Michael Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of ClientWorks, Inc. and co-founder of Northern Sierra Broadband: “It’s important to understand that state and federal efforts have been caused by the pandemic; it completely blew up the concept of why we need broadband and why it’s the fourth utility: water, sewer, power, and now broadband. Without broadband the other three are irrelevant.
“When everyone was at home and working from home, people got comfortable with it—they now realize they are actually more productive [than in an office].”
The necessary pivoting actually brought about an astounding number of improvements—about three to five years’ worth of progress within the single year of 2020. This, according to Anderson, is the reason why so many funding dollars are being thrown at broadband and its necessary role in the modern landscape.
On the state level, in 2021 Governor Gavin Newsom and legislators implemented SB-156, a bill intended to create and maintain infrastructure for areas in need of solid broadband service. $6.5 billion—an extraordinary amount of money—has been allotted for the state with $100 million dollars alone being set aside for Nevada County and other rural communities. Multiple grant rounds will take place between now and 2025— one per year—with those allocations representing anywhere from six to ten projects.
The chances of the grants going to just one entity are slim, according to Anderson.
Federal grants signed into law by President Joe Biden will set aside a whopping $68 billion for the country as a whole; Anderson said California is set to receive $8-10 billion of that, while Nevada County will get another $100 million between 2023-2026.
“We [in the area] will see a lot of money headed our way,” he said. “This is the same story in all the western slope counties—Amador to Sierra—rural counties where people have flocked, flooding and ratcheting up housing costs. That fourth utility [broadband] doesn’t yet exist.”
From the business side of things, Robert Trent of Sierra Commons in Nevada City said that his organization’s decision to implement a gigabit connection at its location has been helpful in assisting local business owners run their operations in an efficient manner, no matter the weather or the user’s personal connection.
Sierra Commons is a co-working facility which welcomes members and those who need a reliable spot from which to work. Memberships range from monthly, daily, and weekly access to its campus and its many technical offerings to pay-as-you-go hourly service. Because of the ongoing pandemic, walk-ins are not accepted at this time but those hoping to work inside can contact the organization ahead of time.
“Technically speaking,” said Trent, “a gigabit internet connection can transfer data at 1,000 Megabits per second. For comparison, a typical DSL connection in our area is around six to 20 Megabits per second.
“Non-technically speaking, having a gigabit internet connection is like going to the Grass Valley DMV to take care of several expired registrations and having your new tags delivered to you before you get on Brunswick.”
Not only do Sierra Commons’ services allow for a quick connection but allows users of the service to do more with more.
“When gigabit internet entered our building, we saw an increase in people working in digital video, large-scale graphic design, and cloud computing.
“We currently have monthly members who are digital video editors, social impact professionals working internationally, and an animator working on a project for HBO Max. These coworkers can do their jobs more efficiently now that we have a super-fast internet connection.”
Services such as those Sierra Commons provides are proving more imperative as time goes on.
Rural entrepreneurs, said Trent, are the driving force behind much of the efforts being put into accessibility to those throughout the region.
“We’re asking questions like ‘how can we create new businesses that take advantage of a growing remote workforce?’ ‘Which emerging urban business models can we modify to work locally?’”
“By itself, our broadband connection will not spontaneously generate new businesses. But it is laying a foundation for future innovation and growth.”
Michael Anderson said while the implementation of broadband internet in Nevada County is an enormous goal, there are still some steps to take to educate customers.
“I want people to know that there’s going to be some really important decisions made not just in Nevada County but in California. This is the time for people to get involved and pay attention to public policy.
“(There are) decisions to be made and if we do it wrong there could be consequences that would be detrimental to the economy but it could be a life or death matter. Cell towers were not working properly [during the early January storm] and people couldn’t dial 9-1-1. They said, ‘I couldn’t get a signal.’ This is really important.”
Jennifer Noble is a freelance writer based in her hometown of Nevada City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.