VisitMendocino.com sums up this northern California community as a peaceful and serene:
"Mendocino County, where rugged coastline, breathtaking beaches, picturesque villages, majestic redwood forests and America's Greenest Wine Region beckon you to escape to a slower pace."
While the people of Mendocino County love life in the slow lane, they would love a fast lane for the Internet. Mendocino County, known for its wineries, its redwoods, and its greenery is now becoming known for its efforts to develop their own community-owned broadband.
The Mendocino County Broadband Alliance (MCBA) was borne out of a need to fill gigantic gaps in broadband coverage created by the private sector. The geological and rural nature of the area presents an insurmountable challenge to the private cable and telco business models in this spacious county of just under 88,000 residents. While there is still archaic dial-up service, spotty and unreliable satellite access, and a few communities with DSL, the MCBA reports that over half of the population has NO access to broadband.
Community leaders in Mendocino County have contemplated the need for access in their area for some time. What really drove home the urgency of the situation was the 2011 death of Esplanade, Mendocino County's small, local, independent ISP. Carol Brodsky, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, spoke with MCBA for the story:
When Esplanade, a small, privately owned south-coast Internet service provider closed its doors in 2011, around 400 customers were left in digital darkness, according to Greg Jirak, strategic planning chair for the Mendocino County Broadband Alliance. The resultant issues cascaded and greatly affected the lives of individuals, organizations and businesses.
Jirak goes on to describe other ways Mendocino County has suffered due to the loss of a large part of the scanty Internet coverage they had:
“When Esplanade folded, the Coast Community Library was no longer able to provide public Internet access,” Jirak explains.
Seniors were severely impacted because of Esplanade’s shutdown. “The South Coast Senior Center staff helped seniors use their Internet connection to deal with Social Security, Medicaid, insurance issues and medical appointments. Now all staff shares a single, slow dial-up line and Internet classes were cancelled. The Center came within hours of losing a $20,000 grant because of its lost Internet access,” says Jirak.
Other local businesses maintained day-to-day operations that required, and depended on, commercial online processing. A local pharmacy, a custom art printing business, and a concrete and aggregate manufacturer, were not able to continue operating without Internet access. In order to continue business, all were required to enter into expensive and binding long term satellite contracts or T1 leases.
While some local schools have Internet access for students, that availability doesn't carry forward at the end of the day:
Anderson Valley High School has Internet availability and tries to accommodate students’ needs, according to [Anderson Valley Elementary School Principal Donna] Pierson-Pugh. “But if you don’t get your homework completed, once you go home, you probably won’t have access,” she explains. “High school aged-students are impacted academically by not having access to broadband,” she says.
Even the tourism industry has suffered. As it turns out, while tourists want to escape their hectic lives, they also want to be able to check their email and post vacation pics on social media sites, which is a great marketing tool for hospitality and tourism in the County. Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino County, Inc., notes how in the past, lack of broadband was no big deal. Now, however, visitors are often shocked and frustrated by the lack of high speed connections. That pic vacationers wanted to post never makes it to FB without broadband in Mendocino County.
Story after story of Mendocino County's situation enforce what the MCBA already knows - that in order for the community to stay economically viable, broadband needs to be in Mendocino County. In response to what community leaders consider a critical situation, MCBA is leading the local charge to bring community-owned broadband to Mendocino County.
MCBA is mostly comprised of volunteers; with the exception of one secretary, the entire organization is staffed by local professionals. The Alliance estimates their pro bono services to be equal to approximately $500,000 per year. The group was endorsed by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in May 2011 and is a collaboration of the Economic Development and Financing Corporation of Mendocino, the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, and the Mendocino Coast Broadband Alliance.
Jim Moorehead, Steering Committee Chair, and Shirley Freriks, Outreach Committee Chair, had each started and belonged to other groups whose goals were to obtain American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to increase access in the local community. They combined their efforts in 2007, reached out to their current partners, and began contacting other communities that had successfully created community-owned networks. One of the groups offering sage advice was one we have followed closely, ECIFiber.net in Vermont. MCBA now has alliances with the local chambers of commerce, farm bureaus, and healthcare providers, as well as an endorsement of the County Board of Supervisors.
While the community-owned network in Mendocino County is still in the planning phase, possibilities are growing for the people of the community. In addition to approaching the FCC with suggested corrections to the broadband availability map, MCBA has a business plan and is on the move. Learn more from their site.